Farmers in town, Alabama, 1936

Dorothea Lange

Farmers in town, Alabama, 1936,

Library of Congress Photo

This is such an unusual Lange photo. The people look -if not prosperous- well dressed, not in transit, not in trouble, not oppressed by The Depression.

Also, the women are sitting. It also shows a lack of real interaction between the photographer and subject. Lange asked, it appears, if it was OK to take the photograph, they, reluctantly (I think) said yes, and her husband (I think), just off camera left, does not leave the scene, protectively.

More importantly, what was Lange doing?

It seems, by the young daughter’s reaction, that Lange was performing, squeezing out something from the scene, trying to get a response, trying for animation if not insight. Was she “clowning?” Maybe, a little bit. Was she saying, “You look great.” Perhaps. Sometimes a subject is “whole,” it needs nothing except for the photographer to not get in the way. Sometimes, the subject needs coaxing. Sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. It appears that Lange was trying hard to evoke empathy. All three members of this family appear to have a different reaction: The father acts as a guardian, the daughter tries to please. The mother endures, a kind of buffer between the father’s wariness and the daughter’s pleased-to-be-acknowledged winsomeness.

This is what all photographers do. If we look at most of Lange’s most famous images, it appears she is neutral, letting the subject project back to the camera what they want to give. In most of Lange’s images, she selected the most downtrodden, adrift, wounded and injured subjects and, logically, what they project was their grief, anxiety and  trouble.

In this photo, Lange saw something different: well-being. This was the first year of the FSA. Perhaps Lange had not quite come to an acknowledgement or recognition of exactly what she wanted to do with her work, and, of course, the work wasn’t entirely hers. She had a master. She had a job. What did her employer want for her to see

This image is more than a snapshot but less than a serious “socially concerned” image, the kind Lange became known for. In other words, Lange as a photographer was, after all, human!

She was evolving, and she had not yet gotten her intention down to a repeatable stylistic vision.

Later, in 1936 and 1937, especially in the her native California, Lange’s photos turn to sadness, grief and despair.

Does that make this image “worthless?”

Actually, it may be the opposite. This moment says things about The Depression that were another truth: not all people  were blown off the land, not all were dispossessed. Not all were living in a catastrophe. Some were going to get by. Some were not on the road. Some were going to “make it.”

Of course, in 1936, that was not the narrative that Roy Stryker (the Director of the Historic Unit at the Resettlement Administration) wad tasked with showing and that was the bread and butter of the unit that became the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

The mission was information, but the images were powered by a well-prescribed agenda: show the desolation and suggest a remedy. That remedy was, in this case, the RA (later becoming the FSA), the Resettlement Administration, the government. The method was to provide visual propaganda.

If, once in a while, there was a counter narrative, as in the farm family in Alabama, well, so be it. It appears that even Dorothea Lange danced on the edge of that two-edged sword. Every now and then one edge did not cut.

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