Viewed From the Outside
Anne Tyler once said that those who become artists or writers frequently do so in response to having been isolated at some point in their lives. She should know: She was raised in a Quaker community near Raleigh-Durham, isolation enough in the Bible Belt.
Photographer Dorothea Lange experienced isolation because of a physical disability. Stricken by polio when she was 7, she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. Lange once said, “No one who hasn’t lived the life of a semi-cripple knows how much that means. I think it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. [It] formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”
Indeed, the force and power of Lange’s disability caused her to become an expert observer, a watcher from the sidelines. For proof, we need look no further than “The Photographs of Dorothea Lange,” an exhibit from the Hallmark Photographic Collection currently showing at Cheekwood through June 29. While many viewers look at Lange’s work and say she was a documentary photographer, it is obvious from these prints that she did much more than simply record what was in front of her.
Lange’s disability allowed her to get close to those she photographed, an advantage she acknowledged. “It puts you on a different level than if you go into a situation whole and secure,” she once said. But years of watching from the sidelines allowed her to imbue these imagesof migrant workers, of tenant farmers, of Japanese-Americans in internment campswith an understanding of what “other” means. Only someone who felt like an outsider could take such meaningful pictures, which combine this outer, visual sense with a strong inner feeling. Keith F. Davis, Fine Arts Program director for Hallmark, says in his preface to the exhibit that Lange’s brilliance lies in her sensitivity and truthfulness to both realms of experiencethe things she saw and the things she felt.
That said, how can people think Lange a “documentary” photographer? In academic circles in recent years, much has been made of whether objectivity really exists. Some feminist critics argue that it doesn’t, although a distanced view is seen as better, less emotional and opinionated, less feminine, and somehow more balanced and more masculine. The camera has sometimes been cited as a coconspirator in this farce of objectivity, a machine that allows the human eye to capture information with a sense of remove.
Lange’s photographs suggest, however, that the camera can work in quite the opposite wayshe called it “an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” And as this exhibit shows, the camera, along with her disability, formed the way Lange saw the world. As a photographer, she guides us through certain periods in American history, providing a narrative that records her point of view, just as oral histories do. The camera is at the very least her ally in this venture. By freezing the moment, her photographs allow us to experience and respond to her story the way she tells it.
Cheekwood’s presentation of the exhibit helps bring out this aspect of her work. Alternately green and gray walls remove all distractions, and the work is organized according to period, placed so that each photo can be viewed with ease. Placards with quotations from Lange are featured throughout the galleries, as are explanatory graphics that place her photographs in an historical and cultural context. In the last gallery, her own voice rings out in the form of video clips from a program made in the mid-’60s before her death, when she was preparing for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
At the end of the exhibit, there is a notebook where museum-goers can record their own responses to one of the pictures; Cheekwood has promised to highlight one viewer comment each week. The observations of several noteworthy figures, including Rosalyn Carter, Peter Guralnick, and Nashville’s own John Egerton, are also included here. Feeling something is practically required at this exhibit.
But while feelings are central to the experience of viewing Lange’s photographs, they shouldn’t overshadow her exquisite composition or her technical expertise. Depression-era images such as “Death in the Doorway, Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California, 1938” and “Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas, 1938” do more than simply evoke a response in us. Like any good storyteller, Lange knows how to use the elements of composition to convey a narrative. Pattern, light, and contrast are her equivalents for words, dialogue, and metaphor. Even in overworked images such as “Migrant Mother, Nimpomo, CA, 1938,” the details are exceptional. Pay attention to the story, but notice also how she tells it.
This is also true of Lange’s lesser-known later work, in which she focused not so much on how people responded to events but how they responded to others. “Man Stepping Off Cable Car, San Francisco, 1956,” “Egypt, 1963,” and “Winter, California, 1955” are all extraordinary in their clarity and composition. The last, a photograph of perhaps her pregnant daughter-in-law sleeping, makes something quite beautiful and almost neoclassical of the folds in the printed fabric of the woman’s clothes. The faded tan lines from her shoes on her bare feet is a remarkable touch, one that somehow speaks to the weariness of waiting for a child to come.
In the video, Lange speaks of wanting to produce an exhibit that portrays the “immense variety and richness of human life.” She died in 1965, but were she still living, I think she would find that the current exhibit fulfills her expectations. What is here is rich indeed, a feast for the mind, the heart, and the eyes.
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