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?”
came to work in the fruit and vegetable harvests.”
Coachella Valley, California,
by Dorothea Lange, 1937
Dorothea Lange, as always, was interested in more than the facts of a situation. She wanted intimacy with “the other.” This man, obviously wary, is relaxed enough to put up his foot, a sure sign of trust. The captioning of the photo -hers- speaks volumes. He had had a station in life, even though it was rented. Now he only had his truck, his labor, his -and his family (background in the shadows)- and his footlocker full belongings.
Marion Post Wolcott was one of the later Farm Security Farm Security Administration ( FSA) photographers and went on to be one of the Office of War Information photographers (OWI) under the direction of her former boss, at FSA, Roy Stryker. She was unique among FSA photographers, showing the extremes of the country’s rich and poor in the late 30’s, and addressed the issues of race relations with intensity and depth.
Wolcott’s creativity and her unfailing perseverance resulted in powerful documentary images: farmers harvesting the tobacco fields in Lexington, KY; affluent spectators at the races in Florida; coal miners and their families throughout West Virginia and farm laborers in North Carolina and Mississippi.
Jack Delano, was one of the group of photographers who fanned out throughout the United States in the 1930’s and 40’s on behalf of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Delano was not as well known as the other F.S.A. photographers, who included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee. Mr. Delano created images of people and places of surpassing elegance and empathy. Certain of his beautifully detailed, crisp black-and-white prints show the Evans influence, but his work also had the verve and deep insight of Lange and the technical curiosity and skill of Lee.
Just about the time you think you’ve seen all there is to see about the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the photographers from the Historical Section, up pops another one!
Somewhere in mid 1937 Roy Stryker, Director of the “Unit,” made a conscious decision to start showing more than just poverty and the negative affects of the Depression, various natural disasters and the dire conditions of America’s farms and the people who worked them. The Resettlement Administration (RA) was tasked with convincing Americans that the government’s programs were needed, were effective and that it was money well spent. Little wonder that the initial efforts of the Historical Unit, in the beginning, concentrated on what was causing the rural displacement of tens of thousands beleaguered Americans, showing everything from the Dust Bowl of the Midwest and West to the displacement of massive flooding, overuse of the land and changing cultural realities, in the South. This was the FSA’s original mission, started a year earlier. But Stryker knew that the problems of rural America were not limited to rural America and that the great displacement and cultural change of America was affecting all parts of the country. He revisited his mission and expanded it to show more than just problems, but to include a hitherto unseen view of how all Americans lived. He assigned his photographers to the task of broadening their coverage and the “Unit” went from a narrow and propagandistic reportage arm of the government to an overall recorder of “American Life.”
From St. Louis to Wall Street to hangin’ with Hemingway and, finally, to the Farm Security Adminsitration, Walker Evans methodically fused reportage with the art esthetic.
Here’s a short video of the great Walker Evans.
By the 1940s, Russell Lee, Roy Stryker and the remaining elements of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) had begun to move onto the next great era of America: World War. The Depression was beginning to wane, the result of an uptick in industrial production gearing for war.
For Lee and company that meant a slight shift in message and a growing modernness of style, more mobile because of the use of smaller cameras and the sheer volume of serious photography being done in the “internet of its era,” the new “picture magazine” of Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, etc.
The last stages of FSA saw the focus and imagery of the FSA turn from exposing the depth of wretchedness to reform and reclamation during the Depression to a message of growing prosperity and recovery, a message that supported the idea that America “was back!”
If you are shooting for the Government there is a reason you are on the payroll. Your “boss” wants you to support a message. The message can be benign or insidious but make no mistake, you will deliver the “message” or you will be freelancing.
No image better personifies this message than Lee’s 1941 image of five African-American boys, outfitted in their finest, posing proudly for Lee’s Rollieflex (the irony of the “Rollie” being a German camera made in Lower Saxony was probably not lost on photographers of the war). In fact, the Rollie and the Leica were the two new technological “stars” coming into use during the war, both using roll film, faster to operate than previous cameras, especially because the speeds of film had also inceased to a whopping ASA of 125. Both were German manufactured. However, the main work horse for most press photographers -especially the military Signal Corps shooters- was the Speed Graphic, big (it took a 4″ X 5″ sheet of film, one sheet at a time), cumbersome and slow to use, but American made.
Even while we fought the war the era of imports (specifically from Germany and Japan) had begun. The full deluge couldn’t and didn’t happen until the war was over and the conquered Axis countries were occupied and their manufacturing bases had begun to produce again, this time, fully modernized and aimed at export to, mainly -insert irony- the United States.
Dorothea Lange not only photographed the people who were suffering the disaster of the Depression, she got to know them.
Her captions, written and sent to Roy Stryker at the FSA (either with her undeveloped film -which was rare- or with her developed film (she was the only FSA shooter allowed to do so) often were mini Short Stories.
In the photograph above, for example, in 39 words Lange hits four of the five “5Ws and the H” that are the staple of good journalistic writing. The “How” is obvious: California by car.
Lange’s intimacy was a keystone of her work. The relaxed body language of the migrant father, the careful posing of six people (never easy and especially so with young children), the near “offering” of the baby to the photographer, a metaphorical gesture that Lange was undoubtedly aware of, all indicate a more than momentary photo shoot. She was engaged and she, like any good photographer, was dropping the barrier between subjects and “official person.” Her work indicated familiarity and, to a degree, intimacy.