Photographs of
A Lifetime

Michael E. Hoffman
How did she do it? In her seventy years, she was able to capture so much of the soul of this huge bleak great sad poor wonderful country. How did she do it?

They say that you have to be careful --- because cameras do take souls. That must be the secret --- the way she was able to work her way into the souls of people. She knew she was in the soul-catch business, so she got good at it.

Born in 1895, got polio when she was seven, which would cast her life so differently, because in those days they put "cripples" in the back rooms, or out on the street to beg for money. She said, about the experience that left her with a life-long limp,

    It was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I've never gotten over it and am aware of the force and power of it.

When she decided to become a photographer, she did it all. In those days, you didn't shoot some pictures and send them off to "the lab" to be processed. You chose the film, shot it with a camera you had probably modified in some way. You did the developing, the focus, the cropping. You made one of the thousand choices of light and contrast and size and cut --- all to create your vision, or what you thought was your vision.

But, we have to ask ourselves, exactly what was it that turned her from a rich folks' portrait artist in San Francisco into one who would create some of the most haunting photographs of America of the depression, the American poor, the Americans without home or hope. Maybe it was her pain early on at seeing how the Indians of New Mexico were treated; maybe it was growing up poor and Jewish in a New Jersey ghetto; maybe it was being there when the migrant workers tried to come into California, and got pushed back. (We were as scared of our poor back then as we are now).

After she picked up the camera and said, "I'm going to be a photographer," her real chance came from the feds. In those days, the government simply gave artists a chance to practice their craft. Instead of requiring you to put together a grant request to pursue this or that dumb project for the NEA, the government representatives went out and looked for people who were already doing it, and then said, "Here's some money. Go out and find some more people, just like yourself, who can help you with this project."

In that way, they hired artists, painters, and sculptors. Even if you were some sort of an amateur, they'd probably take you on. If your work happened to be photography, you'd be hired on at the Farm Security Administration --- as Lange was --- to go out in the world and just take pictures. Very easy, a simple process of a simpler time. (These days, the people who get government money to do art projects don't have to know their craft. Instead, they have to know how to put together a tedious application. You can be a dummy with film, and technique, and style --- not even know which end of the camera is the business end --- but if you prepare 200 or 300 pages of grant application with all the right words --- you get on the artistic dole.)

§     §     §

Still, it wasn't all peaches and cream back then. There were complaints that the photographers were only concentrating on the poor and the dispossessed. Senators from Mississippi and Oklahoma didn't like that. Reflected badly on the country. There were requests that they show "some successful farms and farmers." Pare Lorentz was to say,

    Lange, with her still pictures, and Steinbeck, with two novels, a play, and a motion picture, have done more for these tragic nomads than all the politicans in the country.

And Lange herself says, of her craft,

    You force yourself to watch and wait. You accept all the discomfort and the disharmony. Being out of your depth is a very uncomfortable thing...You force yourself onto strange streets, among strangers. It may be very hot. It may be painfully cold. It may be sandy and windy and you say, "What am I doing here? What drives me to do this hard thing?"

Aperture, with their usual art and grace, and taste, have given us here almost 150 Lange photographs, including photos from her early days in San Francisco, and, as well, some from Egypt, India, and Ireland. Part of her art was the way she angled and shaped her work --- and you can see it here.

The most famous are all here, including "Migrant Mother of Nipomo, California, 1936." Lange knew what she was doing. But the singular fact is that even without cropping and cutting, she had the wisdom to know that she had found a face, a haunting face of an anguished mother, a face that would tell the story of an entire generation of the dispossessed.

--- I. A. Schwartz

Photographs © 1978 City of Oakland,
The Dorothea Lange Collection,
Oakland Museum

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH