Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Dorothea Lange: the politics of seeing

She was a politically committed photographer – “Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, isn’t it?” she rhetorically asked – hence the title of the wonderful exhibition at the Barbican and this superb book.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

The story of how Dorothea’s Lange’s drive home through California in 1936 included a stop at a makeshift camp for destitute people like Florence Owens Thompson – who had made the journey from Oklahoma in a desperate search for work – has been told a number of times:

“I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions…I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food”.

It should come as no surprise that in the book “Dorothea Lange: politics of seeing” one of the first essays is devoted to “Migrant Mother”. The essay’s author, David Campany, queries the nature of the way one of seven photographs has been accorded a status of its own.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, the Oakland Museum of California

This phenomenal promotion of one image – revealing  relations between aesthetics, ethics and politics –has been elevated and placed on the altar of liberal compassion – here is stoicism, dignity and maternal virtue tidily  wrapped up for visual consumption; being in the public domain, it has been endlessly reproduced free of charge.

In the process, Florence Owens Thompson, who received zilch for her portraiture, gets forgotten. Lange, to be fair, did not get rich for photographing her. But in 1998, a print of “Migrant mother”, with Lange’s handwritten notes, was sold in Sotheby’s in New York for $244,500. The price of poverty.

“Politics of seeing” has over two hundred images and each of them, printed on matte paper, has a page to itself. What emerges from seeing a substantial body of Lange’s work is the way she likes to home in on body parts whether they be feet and hands or torsos and backs. Limbs and torsos appear synecdochically as metaphors for the fractured body politic of American society.

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940, the Oakland Museum of California

Her work after the Second World War is not seen as frequently as her pre-war projects but Politics of  Seeing has important sections on Lange’s photographing of shipyard workers in California and the  affluence of the new popular culture taking shape in the 1950s.

Lange’s documentation of the removal of all Japanese American citizens from the Pacific Coast to internment camps resulted in hundreds of photographs but they were not made public until long after the war. Nearly thirty of Lange’s internment shots, remarkably poignant, are reproduced in the book and most of them will  not be familiar photographs.

Dorothea Lange was a politically committed photographer – “Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, isn’t it?” she rhetorically asked – hence the title of the wonderful exhibition at the Barbican and this superb book. Lange was also an artist and her body of work goes well beyond what resulted from the drive home in 1936 when she stopped at a makeshift camp by the side of the road.

“Dorothea Lange: politics of seeing”, edited by Alona Pardo with Jake Golbach, is published by Prestel.

 

 

 

 

 

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