Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 – Oct. 11, 1965)

The fifth entry in the series, “Social Realism and the Popomo (Post Postmodern),” in which I ask the question – Is there a continued interest in using artwork to point out and/or correct social injustice by artists, curators, museums and other art institutions (The Art World) in the Twenty-first Century United States?

Dorothea Lange, "I Am An American" 1942

The famous social realist photographer, Dorothea Lange was a third generation U.S. citizen of German descent, * born in Hoboken, New Jersey. She contracted polio at age 7, and had a permanent limp in her right leg as a result. Lange said that (and I paraphrase) the limp guided her, and kept her humble because of its power over her physical being. Her father left the family when she was 12 years old, so she dropped his surname (Nutzhorn) and took her mother’s maiden name, a smart move as well as an emotional one (Nutzhorn being one degree more unusual than my own “Klomp.”. :-)

Lange learned photography from the great photography teacher, Clarence H. White, and was apprenticed to various New York City photographers, among them the famous San Francisco earthquake, and portrait photographer, Arnold Genthe. She moved to San Francisco in 1918 and lived there the rest of her life, marrying Maynard Dixon, the famous western painter in 1920.

The advent of the Great Depression in 1929 (you know, the one of which we almost had a repeat performance) sent Dorothea into the streets to photograph the unemployed and homeless. Those early photographs brought her employment in the Federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Thus, her photographs for the government, never earned her great amounts of money, only steady employment, and finally fame. Lange divorced Dixon in 1935, and married Paul Schuster Taylor, the economist, who had the greatest influence on her development as social photographer of the disenfranchised. I illustrated the journal entry of Tuesday, January 11, 2011, with Lange’s photograph (“Migrant Mother”) of Florence Owens Thompson. That photograph demonstrates in stark visual terms Owens’ plight, no work available, whose frightened and poorly clothed children are starving, as is she. It seems to me a strange and definitely odd contradiction of the first order that in the 1930’s and 40’s the United States federal government was responsible for overseeing Ms. Lange’s exposition of the disenfranchised farming and working class poor while our contemporary middle and working class members of the various Tea Parties’ desire less government interfearence in their lives (misspelling on purpose). Is anyone documenting – in photography, video, or film - the plight of the disenfranchised homeowners whose lives have been ruined by the big banks in the current economic crisis? * 2

"A crowd of onlookers on the first day of evacuation from the Japanese quarter in San Francisco, who themselves will be evacuated within three days."

After the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor, Lange refused a Guggenheim Fellowship in order to record the forced evacuation of Japanese citizens of the United States to internment camps. The photographs make plain the reality of thousands of Americans forced to give up property, livelihood, and all rights without recourse. * 3 The images were impounded at the time, though they are available today in the National Archives.

At the invitation of Ansel Adams, Lange became in instructor at the California School of Fine Arts (1945). She was also a cofounder of Aperture magazine in 1952.

Lange’s legacy lives on in her work. She died at age 70 of esophageal cancer.


* I mention the degree of removal from citizenship in these United States to remind myself that all of us, even those descended from the Mayflower arrivals in Plymouth, MA in 1620 are not the original citizens of the North American continent - the United States not even having been a figment in their imaginations – and most of us are only one to two times removed from that lack of U.S. citizenship.

*2 Though it is supposedly over, it is predicted that another 1 million homeowners will be forced out of their houses this year, 2011, and on average nationally, the value of the houses, condos, and apartments we live in is half of what it was in 2005. Great swaths of new domestic architecture have been abandoned because of the Banks and their bizarrely manipulated subprime mortgages – which (by the way) have not been made illegal by our government (less is better). Is anyone documenting all the billions of dollars worth of empty buildings nationwide?

* 3 We’ve gotten good at repeating the mistake!


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. See Copyright.

*1 TITLE: San Francisco, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war.

*2 "A crowd of onlookers on the first day of evacuation from the Japanese quarter in San Francisco, who themselves will be evacuated within three days."
By Dorothea Lange, San Francisco, California, April 1942
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority
(210-GC-426) [VENDOR # 175]

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