t’s hard to overestimate the importance of either Dorothea Lange’s photography as fine art or its relevance to our contemporary society. Whether reversals come about by natural forces or by economic or political circumstances, or via a combination of these elements, our contemporary world is nothing if not more intense than the world that Lange’s photographs bear witness. Many people have cameras at hand and candid shots circulate around the Internet and on television news, bringing us evidence of struggle and oppression. But Lange’s work is truly a powerful reminder that the Depression Era she documented was not destined to remain isolated in time.
As a studio photographer, Lange (1895-1965) had already developed her fine arts skills, but her decision to bring her camera to documentary pursuits became an aesthetic breakthrough.
“My own approach is based on three considerations: First—hands off. Whatever I photograph, I do not molest or tamper with or arrange. Second—a sense of place. Whatever I photograph I try to picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third—a sense of time. Whatever I photograph I try to show as having its position in the past or in the present,” Lange said.
Time and space are essential qualities of images, but this perception is not so obvious as it seems. Lange’s embrace of spontaneity reaches aesthetic treasure, the spectrum of spiritual and material.
The Hunter Museum’s Daniel Stetson says he most appreciates Lange’s portrayals of human gestures. This adds an important dynamic to the photography of people, a dynamic somewhat removed from the conventional approaches of studio portrait photography of the period.
With black and white photography, the relevant palette is a grayscale that shows the interplay of shadow and light as elements of photographic composition, although the photographer does have some ability to alter these aspects as part of the dark room process.
Lange’s most iconic photo, since it became a U.S. postage stamp image, shows great compositional complexity with respect to these light values. “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” (1936) portrays a deeply affective subject. This woman and her children, their young faces turned away from the camera seem caught in a split second of what clearly has been ongoing destitution and desperation. A seamless interplay between the literal qualities of the presence/absence of light fulfills the “documentary” purpose of this image even as it asserts itself as fine art.
Naturally, black and white photographs are the constituent pieces of the cinema contemporary to Lange’s photography. American film noir and Italian neo-realist film both work with intense emotions and extreme dynamics of shadow and light. Although Lange’s work has value sufficient unto itself, it’s also true that such imagery may have a much broader aesthetic influence.
It’s certainly debatable how much irony Lange brings to an image like “Rural Landscape with Grapes of Wrath, Billboard, California” (1940), but there can be little doubt of the social impact of her photography. Lange apparently recognized the aesthetic divergence between fine art photographs created in isolation, whether in nature or in the studio—an aesthetic that she had mastered—and photography that affects the dynamics of our world. In the case of this particular image, the emergence of a film based on an important novel by John Steinbeck that portrayed similar subjects that Lange herself encountered, this cultural announcement, this advertisement, situated in the same country of origin of the original imagery, this image itself testifies to the widespread proliferation of the awareness brought to people the plight of others.
Lange’s “Death in the Doorway, Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California” (1930) presents an essence of stillness, the stark building an elaborated coffin, and mystery coheres with the stark reality shown. “U.S. Highway 40, California” (1956) shows a smoldering, over-traveled car below another vehicle itself loaded with cars and pickups—again, no explanation, but this moment charged with strange drama epitomizes Lange’s photographic art.