Text by Bruce Berman
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.
Notice, too, that the rear end of the car is the “background” for her family portrait. It’s tire (artists call that a prime esthetic shape) anchor the image. The road behind is as much a central theme of this image as are people. The car’s rear, already parked would make the least attractive photograph because the light is coming from behind, thus the faces -of all but the girl in the middle- are in shadow, thus in “flat (to photographers the least useful)” light. She had a choice: shoot in the front of the car and get more direct and contrasty -and easy to work with- light, or shoot in back. Was she aware of the “backend/looking back implication of the rear end of the car? She was a professional photographer of many years of experience and this is a deliberate photograph. It would be hard to imagine that she was not.
Also notice that the image is square, indicating that Lange used her twin lens Rollieflex (she rarely cropped and if she did she preserved the original proportion pif the negative. Anything excerpt the Rollie would be rectangular.
One Lange photograph was much more than a snapshot. It was a carefully arranged, researched and presented image that she knew would impart deeper information than a mere photograph could do. Said another way, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, gave more detail, but the general outline of the topic of migratory culture in the 1930s is all here, in this one photograph and caption of thirty nine words.