“How do you tell others what you think is worth telling…you see what is really there.”
“All photographs—not only those that are so called ‘documentary’– can be fortified by words.”
Dorothea Lange is best known for her depression era photography for the Farm Security Administration, most notably her iconic Migrant Mother photograph. Her 40+ year career resulted in many remarkable photographs that included the conditions of interned Japanese- Americans, environmental degradation and African-American field hands, to name just a few. Much of her work was social documentary in nature. She and her husband, agricultural economist Paul Schuster Taylor, collaborated on a book, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939). This book brought together her images with direct quotes from the people she photographed, detailing the realities of their life. Some examples are included in this video from the Museum of Modern Art. Her interest was in art’s power to deliver public awareness and to connect to intimate narratives about the world.
In the current Museum of Modern Art Exhibit, Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, Lange is quoted as noting,
“Am working on the captions. This is not a simple clerical matter, but a process, for they should carry not only factual information, but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings. They are connective tissue, and in explaining the function of the captions, as I am doing now, I believe we are extending our medium.”
The importance of using words to build an informative narrative around images is sometimes debated in the photography world – some believe that the photograph should stand on its own without commentary while others believe a written and verbal narrative adds important context and perspective. Perhaps it is not an either or answer. However, it is an interesting question. In the case of Dorothea Lange’s outstanding work one can conclude that the photography itself stands on its own. Her photography also benefits from the realities and context that she details with words.
“This benefit of seeing…can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image…the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate.” – Dorothea Lange
For more on the current exhibit check out the New York Times review or the column at AnOthe. Tyler Green at Modern Arts Notes Podcast has a wonderful discussion with MOMA’s curator of the exhibit, Sarah Meister.
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And here is the video from MOMA.