Daring to Look

Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field

by Anne Whiston Spirn

Daring to Look

Hardcover, 359 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $40 | purchase

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Book Summary

The never-before-published photographs and captions from Dorothea Lange's fieldwork in California, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina during 1939 for the New Deal's Farm Security Administration come together in an iconic collection that includes defining images of that time in American history.

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Excerpt: Daring To Look

Daring to Look

Daring to Look

DOROTHEA LANGE'S PHOTOGRAPHS AND REPORTS FROM THE FIELD


THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2008 Anne Whiston Spirn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76984-4

Contents

Preface..............................................................................xiPrologue: "A Discoverer, a Real Social Observer"  Dorothea Lange.....................31 Dorothea Lange and the Art of Discovery  Anne Whiston Spirn........................72 Photographs and Reports from the Field, 1939  Dorothea Lange.......................59Editor's Note........................................................................60CALIFORNIA (JANUARY TO MAY)..........................................................63The Highway..........................................................................65The Farm Factory.....................................................................74NORTH CAROLINA (JULY)................................................................89The Farmers, Black and White.........................................................91PACIFIC NORTHWEST (AUGUST TO OCTOBER)................................................141The Migrant Life.....................................................................143The Government and the Farmers.......................................................187The Cutover Land.....................................................................204The Irrigated Desert.................................................................2303 Then and Now  Anne Whiston Spirn...................................................265A Chronology of Dorothea Lange's Life................................................299B Description of New Deal Organizations and Programs.................................302C Documents Submitted by Lange with General Captions.................................304D Key to Negatives and General Captions..............................................309E Additional General Captions from 1939..............................................313Notes................................................................................320Essay on Sources.....................................................................335List of Illustrations................................................................339Index................................................................................343

Chapter One

Dorothea Lange & the Art of Discovery ANNE WHISTON SPIRN

DOROTHEA LANGE IS A MASTER of photography, one of the great pioneering artists of the twentieth century. Some of her images, such as the renowned "Migrant Mother," are icons of American culture. Dorothea Lange is to photography what John Steinbeck is to literature. Her work inspired Steinbeck as he conceived and wrote his powerful novel The Grapes of Wrath, and he used some of Lange's photographs as illustrations in Their Blood Is Strong, his 1938 nonfiction booklet about migrant workers. Filmmaker Pare Lorenz claimed that Lange's images of migrant workers, which appeared in thousands of newspapers, magazines, and Sunday supplements, and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath did "more for these tragic nomads than all the politicians in the country."

"No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually," Dorothea Lange said at the end of her life. "I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves." Lange did dare to look. She dared to go places others feared to go. She moved freely and openly among migrant workers in squatter settlements, and in the camps of labor contractors in regions torn by violent labor conflicts. She traveled thousands of miles down back roads, to remote stump farms near the Canadian border, to sharecropper's cabins in the South, and to small government-sponsored farmsteads in the high desert. She discovered "what had been either neglected, or not known ... things that no one else seemed to have observed in particular, yet things that were ... important," and she held up her mirror that we might see who we were, how we came to be, and what we were in the process of becoming. Daring to look, she raised questions that demand answering, still.

Daring to Look presents 149 of Lange's photographs and her accompanying reports from the field from the year 1939, when, at forty-four, she was at the height of her powers. Few of Lange's superb 1939 photographs-portraying America's massive upheaval and resettlement, its private greed and environmental degradation, its public miscalculations, and its efforts to restore hope-and, as of 2006, only four of her seventy-five seminal texts from that year have previously been published. Her artistic documents from that pivotal year, "lost" and now "found," appear for the first time in this book, almost seventy years after they were produced. Why, with Lange's work among the most celebrated and influential in American photography, have these photographs and texts been so neglected? And why has the handful of photographs that have been published been limited to those of people, when almost half of her three thousand photographs from 1939 are of landscapes and buildings, with no people at all? The answers I found pose even larger mysteries about Lange's work and her identity. Lange herself was missing. This book is a story of discovery and recovery of what had been lost or overlooked or misinterpreted, a process of retrieving and recapturing Lange, the person and the artist.

The "lost" documents and other mysteries

In 1969, a senior in college, I took a slim book from a shelf in a bookstore's photography section and looked into the faces of fifteen women, from an "ex-slave with a long memory" to a pioneer who "crossed the plains in 1856." The book was Dorothea Lange Looks at the American Country Woman. One of Lange's American country women, her face framed by the deep visor of a "do-up" bonnet, was "Queen." I encountered Queen again at the end of that book in a text headed "Typical Field Documentation," describing "Annual Cleaning-up Day at Wheeley's Church" on July 5, 1939. The vivid detail of Lange's words compelled me to look at the photograph itself in a new light. Lange indicated that she had gotten permission from the deacon to return on July 9, "preachin' Sunday," to make pictures of the congregation. Did she return, I wondered, and, if so, what did she see? To find an answer to that question and to learn more about the photographer and her work, I sought out books on Lange and studied her photographs, but over the next thirty years, I found no further "field documentation," despite the "typical" in the title of the example I had read. In 1999, I began a search-and I found the answer. Yes, Lange did go back to photograph Wheeley's Church on "preachin' Sunday." And, yes she did write many other reports from the field.

After Lange's death in 1965, her husband, Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, gave her photographs and papers to the Oakland Museum of California. There I found carbon copies of the field documentation Lange had written years before, on assignment for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). (Both the original texts she submitted in 1939 to the FSA office in Washington, D.C., calling them "general captions," and the photographs themselves, are in the Library of Congress.) Each of Lange's seventy-five general captions from 1939 stands as a portrait of a moment, a place, a group of people, a theme; together, they paint a portrait of rural land and society in America and of the forces transforming them at the height of the Great Depression. These reports from the field appear in this book. The "lost" words and photographs from 1939 reveal starkly contrasting Americas: in California, the spread of large-scale industrialized agriculture and new highways, with the arrival of a migrant population from the Midwest, South, and East; in North Carolina, traditional agriculture centered around the seasonal cycle of harvesting and curing tobacco and the daily lives of white and black tenants and sharecroppers, scarcely changed from the Reconstruction era after the Civil War; in the Pacific Northwest, the irrigation of sagebrush desert, the resettlement of farm refugees from the Dust Bowl, and the abandoned lumber mills and vast acres of cutover forest peopled with pioneers who settled these stumplands. Lange was piecing together the "big story" behind the many personal and local stories of poverty and despair, generosity and hope.

That big story cannot be told in a single photograph or even in multiple photographs. To tell the story of "people in their relations to their institutions, to their fellowmen, and to the land" many photographs need to be grouped by subject, arranged, cross-referenced, and "buttressed" by words. So Lange believed. To accomplish this, she developed the general caption to define a topic, place, or people, to cross-list individual photographs and captions by negative number, and sometimes to include documentary evidence from newspaper clippings, articles, and office reports. Her "Hop harvest in Oregon," for example, is a group of thirty-five photographs (each with its own caption) and accompanying text that sketches how hops are "stripped from the vine," "weighed in the yard and hauled to the kiln in sacks," as well as who the pickers are ("locals and migratory families") and how much they earn ("1ยข per pound of picked hops ... about $1.50 per day") (see general caption 45). Lange attached a pay envelope with rules for hop pickers and an article on children in the hop fields as supporting evidence (figure 16). Her photographs, and their individual captions, are episodes in this cumulative, nonlinear story: a tree arching over a road with a sign advertising for hop pickers ("But they don't say what they pay!"); a boy in the field ("Started work at 5 a.m. Photograph made at noon. Temperature 105 degrees"); a deputy sheriff leaning on the shelf of the paymaster's window ("We have him ... to keep them scared as much as anything"). Although a few of these photographs have been published separately, "Hop harvest in Oregon" has never been considered as the narrative that it is. Now, framed by the general caption, the images and words acquire multiple layers of meaning, embodying what anthropologist Clifford Geertz, much later, would term "thick description." For Lange, the photograph was not the goal; her primary purpose was to discover and to understand. And to share that knowledge. The end product was not the individual photograph but the pair of image and caption, and the group of images with accompanying text.

Lange's words and images, seen together, are more than documentary records; they are an art form. Her best photographs are neither pure art nor mere fact but a marriage of the two that "carries the full meaning and significance of the episode or the circumstance or the situation." She does not trust a visual image to tell the story by itself. For Lange, "writing was the equivalent of the photographs, or even more important," says Rondal Partridge, Lange's assistant and friend. Her strongest captions direct the eye and the imagination beyond the obvious or picturesque or grotesque. At times they focus on the merely factual, at other times they are rhetorical, complex or ironic; sometimes they point to what is not in the photograph. The words are often a punch line to the "photographic statement." As Lange put it, a caption should "enhance and fortify" a photograph; it should not be text "that tells a person what to look for, or that explains the photograph." It should "give you a different look." To give that "different look" to her photographs of U.S. 99 in California, Lange, in 1939, produced her first "general caption." By the end of the year she had developed the form fully, and she continued to use it thereafter. For Lange, those general captions of 1939 were a key step linking her experiments with words and images in the mid-1930s to her photo essays for Life magazine in the 1950s and her work of the 1960s, which freely combined photographs with spare prose. These late works are among her greatest.

If Lange's texts and photographs of 1939 are so important and compelling, why have they not been published until now? Has her work of 1939 for the New Deal's Farm Security Administration simply been buried among the tens of thousands of images and texts by other photographers in the FSA's vast collection, housed since 1943 in the Library of Congress? No-the photographs are posted on the library's public Web site, and the general captions are accessible on microfilm. A 1985 Library of Congress guide for scholars, which noted that fsa photographers had produced both "individual and general captions," included one of Lange's 1939 general captions as an example. A few scholars have mentioned these texts, but none has treated them in depth. If this is not a case of an unknown treasure, then what is the reason for such neglect? Did these authors think Lange's grouping of photographs and her words themselves were of little importance? As Beaumont Newhall wrote, in his 1967 foreword to The American Country Woman, "Dorothea had a sense of words as acute as her sense of the picture. Not enough has been said of it." Forty years later, not enough has been said of it, and too little has been published.

A great many books have reproduced Lange's photographs with captions someone else wrote, apparently unaware or not caring that, to Lange, visual and verbal images are a unity. Without Lange's own words, the intended impact of the photograph is often lost. Further, the words others have substituted for Lange's have often been misleading or wrong. In the 1971 Time-Life book Great Photographers, Lange's photograph of a woman and her children "just arrived from Deadwood, South Dakota," taken in Tulelake, California, is incorrectly placed in Tulare, some five hundred miles away. What's more, the caption asserts melodramatically that they "stare into a bleak future," that their "gaunt eyes and clutching hands tell the tale of misery and hunger" (figure 103). Not Lange's words, and the impression they leave is false: in another photograph the mother is smiling, not bleak at all, her expression not gaunt (figure 104). Lange knew that people tend to look at photographs and read into them their own stories, stories that are often at odds with the circumstances recorded. Her 1937 photograph of a black couple, "Ex-slave and wife who live in a decaying plantation house" from Greene County, Georgia, where they were scratching out a living, was featured in an FSA exhibit of 1940, "New Start on the Land," the caption claiming that FSA programs had doubled the incomes of borrowers, a mockery. Scholars have taken similar liberties with Lange's work, like the historian who misrepresented Lange's photograph of a black tenant farmer from North Carolina with a caption describing how "agricultural programs implemented during the depression not only helped a great many farmers to overcome personal hardships but also taught them new skills and introduced them to new crops" (figure 60). Lange's own documentation suggests no such thing (the man's crops were the standard, tobacco and cotton), and her North Carolina captions cite no helpful programs. To delete Lange's captions is akin to cropping her photographs.

A handful of Lange's 1939 photographs have been published repeatedly without the evidence she provided of their context. A young girl leaning on a wire fence is referred to as "one of Chris Adolf's children, near Wapato, Washington." This is Lange's caption for the individual photograph, but her general caption provides the backstory: this one child is one of eight, all uprooted from the high plains of eastern Colorado by drought ("The dust got so bad that we had to sleep with wet cloths over our faces") and resettled with their parents on "Indian land" (figure 122). In other instances, the descriptions are simply inaccurate: a photograph of a North Carolina country store, made in 1939, is frequently dated to 1937 and the store transplanted to Alabama. Lange's original caption for another image of the store describes it as a meeting place down the road from a tenant farmer's house; Lange had gone to the store with the farmer and his daughter and returned a few days later to take this photograph (figure 177). The photographs reproduced in this book are presented in Lange's own contexts, now restored.

Some curators and critics may argue that a photograph should stand on its own, with no need for explanatory text. To call a photograph "text-dependent" is, in their view, derogatory. An artist should be seen and not heard. But knowledge ought not to be so readily dismissed. Lange's joining of words with images counters the prevalent prejudice that verbal intelligence diminishes visual artistry. The verbal and the visual are distinctly different ways of thinking and knowing, but in those rare instances when one individual practices both arts, that whole should be celebrated, not suppressed. To divide the visual from the verbal, for Lange's work, is to miss the whole that it represents.

Iconic images are by nature archetypal, but Lange's works are also documents of lives and places: where the people came from, how they are making out, what they hope for, and the conditions that shape a person, a homestead, a town, a region. Thus, her captions are as important to her work as the images themselves, providing details, often with direct quotes from the persons depicted, expanding the images, grounding them in time and space. The general captions supply the larger context of event and circumstance and place. To read Lange's photographs and captions together, as she meant that we should, is to sense the necessary tension between the universal and the particular.

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