What I learnt from Dorothea Lange
For social documentary photographers on the the icons is Dorothea Lange, we have studied her images and her work on documenting communities that where not highly visible is impressive. For example, her work documenting the lives of Japanese internees during the second world war is really good. she tackled subjects that where highly contentious and made good images. Her work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) had an agenda that had been set for her to help raise awareness and funds from the government to keep the work that was being done to alleviate the worst of the depression on those most affected by the worst (at the time) depression in American history.
When I studied for my MA in Photography and Urban Cultures I was introduced to the work of Dorothea Lange, though a module on the Photobook in American Culture. (I am not linking to that book as it now sells for a lot of money) Dorothea has had a lot written about her by a lot of writers and the stories that relate to her work have historicised her on many levels. Especially how we relate her to be a Depression era photographer only. For me what I learnt when I looked at the images made as part of the sequence of images she created prior to her famous Migrant Mother photo, show that a photographer should never ever settle for a plain record photo, but work the scene, till they get an image that works for them, Even then she was not happy with the image as she had her darkroom printer remove the thumb in the bottom right corner. The removal of the thumb would not be allowed ethically in todays photojournalism.
Often when teaching, I would see students making an image and look at the back of the camera, and make a judgement call that the images was good enough. I learnt on film and could not do that so, I learnt the hard way make more images, as the important one might not be the last one, but somewhere in the sequence of images and it is a bit like a dance: you introduce with the opening notes, move around your ideas and then fine tune them till you get the image then you add an exit as you back away from the core idea you where trying to express visually and try a different angle, which may or may not work, this way you will get better images. All good photographers, I believe work something similarly to this.
Migrant Mother images
Links to articles on her work. Dorothea Lange
Jörg M. Colberg at Conscientious has a good article exploring the book Day Sleeper about how artists can disappear and not seem accessible and relatable, and how it is nice to see work though a contemporary perspective so we can keep it fresh and relevant to our current understanding and somehow still feel connected to the people in the images.
Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection. this is a great resource worth looking at.