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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Dorothea Lange: the words to say it, the images to show it

Dorothea Lange, "Kern County, California," 1938.
Dorothea Lange, "Kern County, California," 1938.DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

NEW YORK — There’s this somewhat rancid tendency (rancid because so often self-serving) to equate art and heroism. Yes, many artists suffer, and, yes, many artists do good and worthy things. But there’s nothing necessarily heroic about such suffering, such doing, or any sum thereof.

It in no way detracts from Dorothea Lange’s artistic achievement to point out that she really was a hero, and a specifically American one. She bore witness at a very bad time in our nation’s history, and it’s pretty plain that in mounting “Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures” — with no particular anniversary as occasion — the Museum of Modern Art is very much aware of the different (but also not-different) badness of this present time. The show runs through May 9.

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Bearing witness is never a passive act. “Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it?" Lange once said. "I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith. I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.”

Dorothea Lange's "White Angel Breadline, San Francisco," 1933
Dorothea Lange's "White Angel Breadline, San Francisco," 1933DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

Perhaps that sentiment might be expressed another way. Lange’s greatness and enduring value as an artist is owing to her phenomenal eye. Her greatness and enduring value as a moral force is owing to a rare ability to show Americans both as they were and as they should not have been. Or be.

Lange was born in 1895 and died in 1965. Was she fated to pick up a camera? Addressing that question, she chose a startling (and revealing?) analogy. “It is no accident that the photographer becomes a photographer, any more than the lion tamer becomes a lion tamer.”

Three disparate facts may tell us something about her commitment to the underdog.

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At 7, Lange contracted polio and walked with a limp for the rest of her life. “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” Lange once said of her altered gait. “I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.” At 12, her father left Lange and her mother. She stopped using his surname and started using her mother’s. She made a statement of both her identity and independence. The first female photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, she gave it up to document the forced internment — a later time, given to more elaborate euphemism, would call it ethnic cleansing — of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during World War II. The Army subsequently impounded her photographs.

Dorothea Lange's "Man Stepping From Cable Car, San Francisco," 1956
Dorothea Lange's "Man Stepping From Cable Car, San Francisco," 1956DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

The heart of the show is work from the second half of the ’30s, during Lange’s time with the Farm Security Administration (and its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration). Yet one of the more moving images in an exhibition full of them is a 1950s photograph of a criminal defendant. From that same time, the image of a man stepping off a cable car is a marvel of balance, grace, and, yes, social documentation (notice the bag lunch in his right hand).

So much of the wonder of the work is how it both indelibly conjures up the 1930s and early ’40s while speaking so uncomfortably to the realities (and even more perhaps to the falsities) of today. It’s rather dumbfounding, actually, to see that things have come to such a pass that humanity can take on a political aspect. Put another way, Lange’s photographs are ideological, even polemical, to the extent that kindness, sympathy, and decency have become so.

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Dorothea Lange's "Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona," November 1940
Dorothea Lange's "Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona," November 1940DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

Such words honor Lange as a citizen and (for lack of a better term) human being but run the risk of obscuring what a gifted artist she was. Notice how shrewdly she uses a farm laborer’s hand and forearm to frame his upper face. They’re as much device as appendage. Yet the brilliance conceals itself within the naturalness of the gesture. Furthermore, the prominence of his palm both speaks to the nature of his work and, in hiding his mouth, indicates his voicelessness in society. The seams of that palm have an eloquence all their own.

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California," March 1936
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California," March 1936DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

Or there’s Lange’s most famous photograph, the one commonly referred to as “Migrant Mother.” Often referred to as the most-reproduced fine-art photograph of the 20th century, it’s as familiar — and as taken for granted — as the “Mona Lisa” or “Whistler’s Mother.” It’s so profound as to seem artless. Yet not only did Lange draw on centuries of Madonna-and-child iconography, there’s the on-the-fly evidence of the six-frame sequence of which “Migrant Mother” is the final image. Lange’s instinct — or eye — or artistry (take your pick) — was unerring. What all great art has in common is the illusion of inevitability. What all great artists have in common is the ability to make us think that illusion a reality.

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Both of those photographs are among the 90 or so in the exhibition. The emphasis of the show is in the subtitle: “Words & Pictures.” Note which comes first. There’s the relationship of Lange’s photographs to several books they’ve appeared in, most notably “An American Exodus” (1939), written with her husband, Paul Taylor. There’s the relationship of word to image. Within nearly a third of the images, words are visible: at once adding a distinctive visual element and enlarging, even altering how one interprets the image. There’s the issue of the caption, which Lange felt should “extend, buttress, illuminate, and explain the photograph.”

“Explain” can be a loaded word in a photographic context. Lange’s Farm Security Administration colleague Walker Evans was emphatic on the subject. “For the thousandth time, it must be said that pictures speak for themselves, wordlessly, visually — or they fail.” Lange felt otherwise. “All photographs — not only those that are so-called ‘documentary,’ and every photograph really is documentary and belongs in some place, has a place in history — can be fortified by words.” (“Fortified” is less loaded, and far more interesting, in a photographic context, than “explain” is.)

Here that word “heroism” has a useful application. Evans, the greater artist, is a hero of art, while Lange is a hero of the intersection of art and — well, action is too strong a word, or too reductive. Let us say art and conscience.

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“You put your camera around your neck in the morning along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you. The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Maybe the most important word in that quotation — certainly the most important verb — is “teaches.” Evans, as an artist, was at once arrogant enough and noble enough not to believe in teaching (though late in life he became a celebrated teacher at Yale). Lange, as an artist, was at once selfless enough and committed enough to make that verb a very large part of her motivation. She was intensely aware not just of what her art was but also of what it could do.

Dorothea Lange's "Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas," 1938
Dorothea Lange's "Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas," 1938DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

“You know, so often it’s just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust; sitting down on the ground with people, letting children look at your camera ... and you let them, because you know that if you will behave in a generous manner, you’re very apt to receive it, you know?” Looking at Lange’s photographs, one knows that, yes, and nothing so testifies to her greatness and (that word) heroism as that knowledge.

Dorothea Lange's “The Defendant, Alameda County Courthouse, California,” 1957.
Dorothea Lange's “The Defendant, Alameda County Courthouse, California,” 1957.DOROTHEA LANGE/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

DOROTHEA LANGE: Words & Pictures

At Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53d St., New York, through May 9. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org




Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.