You may not know her name, but I can guarantee you are familiar with her iconic photograph Migrant Mother. The image has come to be a staple in most U.S. History textbooks, representing the poverty that struck farmers during the Great Depression. It also is used as an example of the type of work that was done by photographers hired as part of the New Deal program, the Farm Security Administration. By the time she was hired under the FSA to document the plight of displaced farmers, she already had a portfolio full of images capturing the very real, daily effects of the Great Depression on the West Coast.
To be able to photograph people, especially people you do not know has always been something I have admired. There is a vulnerability to being photographed, a sudden self awareness, that I am uncomfortable experiencing so I am uncomfortable asking others to experience it. When I see work by a photographer like Lange’s, a photographer who spent her entire career photographing others, I am in awe. Her work alone is awe inspiring but considering her willingness to move in to an uncomfortable space to take these photos adds a level of deep reverence I am not sure I could articulate.
She believed these photographs were important, she believed that the government and the American people needed to see what was happening to their fellow citizens. It is evident she respected the individuals she asked to photograph. Although she did not spend long periods of time getting to know each of them, she made a point of introducing herself, sharing a bit of her story, what she was doing, why she was doing it, and asking for permission to document a few moments of their life.
The depth of her passion was exposed while on assignment by the military to document the Japanese American relocation and internment in California after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were looking for a photographer that would take the propaganda images they thought the American people needed to see in order to be assured that although these individuals were rounded up and relocated in these camps, they were being treated well and not tortured. Instead they hired a photographer unwilling to conform. Lange documented the harsh reality of what was happening to American citizens. Despite having a sensor follow her around to direct what she could and could not photograph, her images still captured the truth they didn’t want seen. Once they saw the images she was producing, she was fired and all of her work was impounded until the end of WWII. At the end of the war they were quietly released to the National Archive where they remained unseen until 2006 when they were published in the book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.
To learn more about the artist:
- The Story of the Migrant Mother, PBS
- American Masters. Dorothea Lange:Grab a Hunk of Lightening
- Dorothea Lange, MoMA
- Dorothea Lange’s Censored Photographs, Anchor Editions
Ladylike Artists is a weekly feature on my blog where I write about a female artist that has inspired me. My interest for learning more about woman artists peaked when I realized that art history rarely talks about them, saving their stories and work for specialized classes and books. There are more woman artists than we realize! I hope their stories inspire you to ignore whatever boundaries are stopping you from pursuing your passion.