Monday, July 11, 2011

Rediscovering Dorothea Lange

I usually save my rantings about photography for my advanced photo students, but this link to a 1965 documentary about Dorothea Lange is too good to keep to myself.  (It is summer break, after all.)  It's an old-school doc told mostly in Lange's own words as she helped to prepare for a show at MOMA that, sadly, would open to the public after her death from esophageal cancer.

"Dorothea Lange Part I: Under the Trees" by Philip Greene and Richard Moore highlights Lange's desperate need to connect with her audience through her own very personal vision of the subject matter of her photographs.  It is this yearning to make connections that draws viewers in, even viewers who know nothing about the history behind the images.  I always show students in my History of Photography class Lange's famous migrant worker photographs and students never fail to connect with them.  Lange's vision is obviously very clear in the photographs themselves, but it's interesting to hear her speak of her vision with such clarity and precision.

In the first part of the documentary, Lange discusses her upcoming show at MOMA with her son Dan Dixon.  He tells her she's got to start making decisions about which photographs will appear in the show and that her current working methods "are not likely to get the job done".  She tells him she knows, and that she'll start making decisions, but that her inability to select a group of images is not modesty.  She says she is afraid.
One's photographs... really... I mean in a case like mine when you've been a photographer all your life... there is no ducking.  And that's where the content is.  The time for me is past.  To do what is called "the documentary thing".  And I have done that.  But out of those materials I want to extract the things that are... the items that are, in a sense... I don't know... sublimations is the word that comes to my mind.  Give me another...  An essence of a situation.  The universality of the situation.  Not the circumstance.   
I have a million things to do.  A million.  I never have had so many things to do and I've been busy all my life.  Really busy.  But busy and working is different.  Often we keep ourselves darn busy so we don't have to work.  But now it's guess work on my part.  Guess work plus fear is a bad combination.  I can't cut out the fear, but I can cut out the guess work.
Wow.