Crecia C. Swaim
Dorothea Lange used her "cloak of invisibility" to photograph people on the street. By trying to look so inconsequential as to blend into the background, she could get closer to the people she was photographing for a truer, more unaffected shot. In her portrait studio, she used a different approach. Her goal was to make the subject very comfortable with her and thus the camera. She would gently ask questions and listen attentively to the responses, hoping to gain a holistic understanding of what the person was all about. Once she moved to photograph them, they were in a sort of extra-natural state, and felt that Lange's photographs would reveal their true selves.
As a documentary photographer, she photographed people
their environments, as they were, and tried to frame and capture whatever they and their environment had to offer in a way that would evoke meaning; she photographed them within the context of their lives (Elliot, page 7). She has said that part of her inspiration to become a documentary photographer came from her time working at the photo-developing center in San Francisco, looking at people's personal snapshots of landmark occasions and family events. Her photographic style and inspiration can perhaps be summed up in the following quote by Francis Bacon that was tacked to Lange's darkroom door from the time she was 28 until her death at age 70: "The contemplation of things as they are / Without error or confusion / Without substitution or imposture / Is in itself a nobler thing / Than a whole harvest of invention."
Lange believed in the power of the photograph to influence people and to expose problems. She has said that: "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."
It is said that her youthful affliction with polio, coupled with being deserted by her father, gave her a sense of compassion that encapsulates her subjects in a sort of sympathetic bubble that reflects but protects them, if but only for a moment. Her shots seem suspended in time, so full of emotion yet somehow disembodied. The composition of her shots and the crisp clarity of her images lend her pieces a beauty or aesthetic appeal that draws a patient viewer in; once in, the viewer will linger, absorbing the time and place and most importantly the person, captured on film. Her photographs exemplify the artistic vision often deemed necessary to instill a photograph with meaning.
Lange is so committed to capturing the person that her ultimate goal, contrary to what one might instinctually think, is to remain anonymous. The highest achievement is to take a photograph that speaks purely of the subject, and not of the person capturing the subject. For example, the image of
is universally known, yet a small fraction of the people who recognize it know who photographed it.
Using her "cloak of invisibility," she usually captures moments rather undetected. She also employed her second husband Paul to engage subjects in conversation, to distract them and to relax them; with Taylor's help she was able to adapt her portrait-taking techniques to documentary field photographs that felt more natural and personal. George Elliot, in his introduction to her 1966 MOMA exhibit, says that Lange rarely arranged her shots but when she did, she was purposeful about it. In those shots she has her subjects look directly into the camera, confronting the viewer with all their humanity.
Yet in James Curtis' book on FSA photography, her decisions concerning how the subjects of the series of photographs that would contain her best-known
photograph should be posed, and who should and should not be included in the picture, are clearly articulated. See the section entitled:
The California Dust Bowl and
for more on that. The idea of whether or not posing and the like are acceptable in documentary photography will be explored in the following section.
Classroom Implementation Opportunities
Students can define compassion, so that they can decide if they think compassion is a necessary quality for a documentary photographer to have. In making that decision it may be useful to have students define the opposite of compassion. Students can discuss the idea of anonymity versus fame, and which they would seek in their potential chosen profession. It may also be worthwhile to explore the idea of why people usually relax when they are engaged in conversation, and when this strategy might be used in other situations, as well as what strategies students would use to achieve a desired shot.