“Migrant workers like this man whom I
found living with his family by the side of the road
near Raymondsville, Texas, in 1937, were called
bush-hogs.” Photo by Carl Mydans
Narrative by Bruce Berman
Almost always, when photo researchers and academic scholars refer to a Dorothea Lange photograph with people, they mention the “body language” that Lange so brilliantly captured. Usually they mention that Lange had Polio when she was a child and attribute this occurrence to her ability to “read” her subject’s body language.
This is puzzling to most aficianados of good photography, especially photographers themselves.
What good photo reportage doesn’t recognize their subject’s “body language?”
Further, as any photographer knows, most if not all photographers who work in the world of photographing strangers, use their own body language as a sort of introduction card. How else do you “break the ice?”
You wiggle, you smile, you blink you twitch. You slump your shoulders or you stand proud. You use the 42 muscles that are in your face in ways you didn’t even know you had. You appear submissive or, more rarely, dominant.
Photographer’s surrender to their subjects, before their subject’s surrender to them and the only “white flag” you have in the course of a few fleeting seconds is one’s body language.
The photo above, made by Lange, Carl Mydans’ colleague at the Resettlement Administration (the RA, later the FSA), not only tells its story utilizing body language, it does so X 3!
The whole family is sending a message: submission, weariness and wariness and a wry goodwill.
In still photography all you have is the millisecond, the Decisive Moment, as Cartier-Bresson called it.
That millisecond is “everything” and a main tool for the photographer in the mostly self-taught language of photography. In this photo the photographer is enabled by his own goodwill and physical approach. He -and we- are rewarded by an icon of the Great Depression, a family in transit, faced with uncertainty, “soldiering” on, the father of great spirit, the girl on left posing, trying to be pretty, trying to be engaged even though she is stripped of almost everything physical and surely a whole lot spiritual, stripped down to despair but still holding onto her one “rock,” her father, while the littlest girl, almost still in the womb (her father’s surrounding legs), sheltered, too young to really hide (her emotions), afraid and fragile.
In this one photograph we may have the entire story of the year 1937 and the Great Depression and its impact on the rural dispossessed.
Certainly the “body language” of this one family offers some universal truths.
How did Mydans “twist” himself to get this invitation to work? How did this man, this bush-hog, gather his body language, in the midst of his own crisis, stopping, gathering his family (at least part of it), compose himself, put on his I’m OK face and allow the photographer to work, allow himself to trust the photographer, allow this millisecond miracle to live?
Ah, that is the question, and the answer, if it could be found, is the ingredient in the recipe of being a photographer that no language can explain.
To my knowledge, Mydans’ had no childhood affliction that gave him magical advantage in getting his subjects to reveal their deepest and true thoughts and attitudes through the gesture of their hands or legs or arms or head, or, the crook of the neck.
He did it like all photographers do it: identify a possibility, calculate what could be, engage in the moment, see what the moment gives, be sincere (but manipulative), accept the randomness that allows for magic.
Perhaps these skills-for Lange, Mydans and others, is something one just learns to do if they want to come home with the bacon (the photographs).