Friday, July 18, 2008

Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field by Anne Whiston Spirn

Some of the most remembered images from the Great Depression and the migration of farmers and other workers during the Dust Bowl years were from the camera of photographer Dorothea Lange. In black and white she caught the worried expression on the migrant mother's face, the paternal look of the sharecropper watching his daughter pull worms off tobacco leaves, and proud smile of an oldest son who had saved money to buy a bicycle for the family. Her photographs practically defined the hard times of the 1930s.

According to photographer Anne Whiston Spirn, Lange does not get the credit she deserves as an artist and pioneer of photography. Many histories of American photography do not even mention her. Spirn tells how a large exhibit of Lange's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966, three months after her death, seemed to celebrate and end the consideration of her work. Many of her photographs and field reports for the Farm Security Administration have remained locked away unseen until now, as Spirn has arranged their publication.

Spirn thinks Lange suffered critical neglect because she took photographs with a purpose, not intended for galleries. She spent much time alongside the downtrodden, learning their stories and observing their struggles. For every set of photographs that she submitted to her agency, she wrote reports detailing the lives of her photographic subjects. Views expecting artifice in art are surprised by the simplicity and clarity and do not think to label the images "art."

In Daring to Look, Spirn looks at Lange's assignments during the 1939 year, which may have been her greatest, as she toured California, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest with little rest. With Lange's reports, the book gives readers an intimate look at American life just before the Second World War changed everything. Many libraries should consider this great book.

Spirn, Anne Whiston. Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field. University of Chicago Press, 2008. ISBN 9780226769844

No comments: