The big empty

Louis P. Masur is director of American studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and is the author of "The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America."

DOrothea LANGE'S photograph "Migrant Mother" (1936), which shows a plaintive, destitute woman surrounded by her children at the height of the Depression, secured her place as one of the most distinguished documentary photographers of all time. That image has appeared, and been appropriated, countless times -- on a U.S. postage stamp, on magazine covers, even in an ad for the A&E; series "California and the Dream Seekers." Whatever its uses, the image defines and transcends an American moment.

Fortunately, Lange was no one-shot photographer. Born in New Jersey in 1895, she later moved west, opening a portrait studio in San Francisco in 1919. She often traveled the Southwest, photographing Hopi Indians, and then, with the Depression taking its toll, she began to shoot street scenes. From 1935 to 1939, she worked on and off for the Resettlement Administration, which would become the Farm Security Administration, a government agency that aided farmers and farm workers and also hired photographers to document conditions around the country. Lange continued to photograph through the '40s and '50s; her reputation as one of the premier photographers of her generation was ratified in 1966, the year after her death, with a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A remarkable group of photographers worked for the Farm Security Administration -- among them Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein. Over time, each has received spasms of attention, and now it seems to be Lange's turn again. In 2006, her government-sponsored yet quickly censored images of Japanese American internment were published. And now Anne Whiston Spirn brings us a selection of Lange's work -- 149 photographs -- from 1939, most of them previously unpublished, though almost all are available through the Library of Congress' online catalog.

"Daring to Look" is a hybrid work, part personal essay, part portfolio of photographs, part scholarly catalog of captions and negatives. A professor of landscape architecture at MIT, photographer and author of "The Language of Landscape," Spirn argues strenuously that Lange must be appreciated not solely for her portraits but for her landscapes as well, and that any consideration of Lange must take into account not only images but also words -- the general notes and specific captions that the photographer wrote.

Spirn is right to refocus our attention on the landscape. Lange herself said she was trying in her work to tell the story "of a people in their relation to their institutions, to their fellowmen, and to the land." That landscape -- of farms and signs, cut-overs and crossroads, buildings and shacks -- traverses these photographs whether people are present or not. There are also the internal scenes of parlors and kitchens and stored goods. Many of Lange's photographs include doorways, the pathway between public and private, between physical and emotional landscapes.

The volume includes the stunning cover photograph of a young mother, toeing the earth with her foot, her children behind her and another woman standing inside the door fixing her hair (such sensuality in Lange's work); there is the image of a black sharecropper, posing with his diapered son before his shack, his hands delicately touching the child's head (many images of blacks fill these pages); there is the picture of three children, standing proudly outside the house with a bicycle, a fourth child leaning inside on the windowsill (the children always seem at ease before Lange's camera).

The captions for these photographs certainly provide useful information and might even help us read the images: "Near Klamath Falls, Oregon. Young mother, 25, says 'Next year we'll be painted . . . etc.' "; "Young sharecropper and his first child"; "Michigan Hill, Thurston Co., Western Washington. Three of the four Arnold children. The oldest boy earned the money to buy his bicycle."

But neither Lange's captions for specific photographs nor those for groups of images carry the significance that Spirn imparts to them. She claims that the words and images together are their own "art form," because Lange "does not trust a visual image to tell the story by itself." Lange's information about where, when and whom and her occasional quote or comment certainly help us know something about what is going on in the pictures, but the photographs are not dependent for their meaning on the captions. If they were, "Migrant Mother" would elude us unless referred to as "Destitute peapickers in California; a 32-year-old mother of seven children. February 1936."

Spirn undercuts her own argument about the "seminal" importance of the texts by opening the book with three pictures that do not carry a caption. Perhaps she wants to pay homage to James Agee and Evans' classic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which begins with a portfolio of Evans' photographs. Stunned by the eloquence of the images, Agee famously wrote, "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here."

Then again, Spirn laments what she sees as the elevation of Evans and the diminishment of Lange in recent years. But Lange needs no defender; her place in the pantheon of documentary photographers was secured long ago. "No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually," Lange said toward the end of her life. She did that, with thousands of images worthy of our attention and study. Indeed, many of the pictures included in this volume are one of a sequence, and Spirn does not make clear why she excludes the ones she did. These multiple images need to be examined in relation to one another. Doing so would provide a wider visual landscape. The "Migrant Mother" sequence of six photographs, not shown here, proves eye-opening on such subjects as documentary expression and photographic truth.

Spirn concludes "Daring to Look" with a stirring account of her journey retracing Lange's steps, photographing some of the same landscapes shot in 1939, and talking with descendants of the people encountered nearly 70 years ago. "The good photograph," Lange insisted, "is not the object. The consequences of the photograph are the object." These images endure, not as relics of the past but as vital, living documents. We stare, the images stare back, and recognition flashes in our eyes. *

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