Dorothea Lange Delivered Lasting Documentarian Legacies (and other two word phrases that don’t begin with D and L, respectively.)

From day one, I have been told by family, teachers, administrators, bosses, and just about every figure of authority that it would one day be my job to change the world. Well, me and the other hundred-fifty kids sitting there at graduation. And the other three hundred kids that sat in the ninety degree sun for my girlfriend’s graduation. Apparently, we all have the power to change the world. The opportunity, on the other hand, may not be so pronounced. So while each and every one of us can, only a handful ever actually will.

Dorothea Lange was a photojournalist in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Her work, unlike that of millions of other people, directly affected the state of the nation.

While Lange grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, she learned the art of photography in New York City. After learning the art of photography in Manhattan, she relocated to the west coast where she settled in San Francisco. She opened a portrait studio and ran that until the Depression hit. It was outside of this studio that she photographed “White Angel Breadline” in 1932. Lange then set out to photograph the conditions of the country and society’s downfall.

Working for the Resettlement Administration, a government organization, Lange went through California on an assignment to photograph the condition of migrant farm workers. The intent of this trip was to both document the accounts and to garner the support of the American public for government relief programs.

Photojournalists of today and tomorrow will forever be able to draw influence from Dorothea Lange. Her keen eye for composition and her intuition for capturing moments are inspirational and are also key elements in succeeding as a photographer. Apart from just being able to produce great images, Lange was an excellent documentarian. When out in the field photographing, Lange kept notebooks of her so-called “field reports.” These were concise and accurate accounts of her subjects and any relevant information.

This desire for accuracy and truth is part of why Dorothea Lange was (and is) truly amazing. Her work reflects her dedication and talent. In her 1939 publication An American Exodus: A Record Of Human Erosion, she and Paul S. Taylor, her husband, illustrated the hardships of the unemployed Americans during and after the Depression. Taylor was a sociologist and economist who was able to detail the conditions and causes for the strife highlighted by Lange’s photographs.

When presented with the photograph entitled “Migrant Mother,” Jared Auslander, a recent college graduate, studies the image for a minute before saying, “As an image it’s beautiful…I want to know what’s going on.” After learning that the mother in the photograph is only thirty-two years old and she and her family have only been surviving on “frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and the birds that the children killed,” Auslander is even further moved by the photograph.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

This seems to be the standard reaction for Generation Y…to view the photograph with some nagging suspicion of an underlying meaning. We are not only looking at images but looking for their context. When asked whether or not she found the following photograph visually pleasing, Amy Eiferman was quick to ask, “What is this a picture of?” Photographs have become more and more tools of documentation. While there is still creative and artistic freedom, photojournalists must make sure to be fair and accurate.

Whether or not there is some deeper message in every photograph taken, photojournalists must be constantly wary of this. While a photograph can have a profound impact on the world, it is the caption and accuracy of that information which determines whether that impact is positive or negative. As witnessed in tabloids and celebrity gossip columns, photographs can be taken in ways to mislead the viewer or misrepresent the truth.

Dorothea Lange set out to simply document the truth as it stood. Her photographs told the stories of migrant workers during the depression, Japanese detainees in internment camps, and many more. She photographed without bias, documenting both success and failures of government programs and ideas.

When asked how the photographs of today’s news struck her, Amy Eiferman said, “Photos today are very straightforward.” This fits right in line with the sense that news photographs are carefully selected as to deliver the intended message. It is not often that a photograph in a news publication is interpreted in many differing viewpoints.

Lange actually ran into censorship while working for the government during World War II. She was sent on assignment by the War Relocation Authority to create photographs in Japanese neighborhoods, processing centers, and internment camps. Because of her work which tackled the issues of civil rights and fair treatment, the government censored many of her photographs. These censored images went unseen by the public eye until the 1970s…well after the end of the war.

Photographers, like journalists, must be wary of their subject and the context in which they present it. Dorothea Lange showed no hesitation in shedding light on a controversial issue involving her employer; in this case, the government of the United States. This sets the bar at enormous heights. Photojournalists must be unwavering in their attempts to convey the truth with photography.

With the attention spans of today’s audience, it seems that photographs are becoming a single frame within a video. This becomes even more apparent with the new use of slideshows for all types of photography. Many news sites now employ the use of narrated slideshows in the place of articles or video. Other outlets use slideshows to allow viewers to browse through sets of photographs on their own accord. The AP has a daily photo gallery slideshow which has the top journalistic photographs of each day. These images are all aesthetically appealing and, for the most part, accounts of a newsworthy event.

Even in such a day and age, the photograph must be able to stand on its own. The still photograph is hesitant to be left behind.

In a commentary on his website, Jim Erhardt writes, “Steve McCurry’s image of the Afghan girl on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic Magazine is one that most of us will never forget…A single frame of 35mm film, it is without a doubt one of the most powerful and compelling images of modern times.”

And that single frame, that one shot…that’s what photojournalists have learned to try for everytime.

-adam michaelson

more ->




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s