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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothea Lange

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”*…

 

From his office at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., Roy Stryker saw, time and again, the reality of the Great Depression, and the poverty and desperation gripping America’s rural communities. As head of the Information Division and manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, his job was to hire and brief photographers, and then select images they captured for distribution and publication. His eye helped shape the way we view the Great Depression, even today.

Professionally, Stryker was known for two things: preserving thousands of photographs from being destroyed for political reasons, and for “killing” lots of photos himself. Negatives he liked were selected to be printed. Those he didn’t—ones that didn’t fit the narrative and perspective of the FSA at the time, perhaps—were met with the business end of hole punch, which left gaping black voids in place of hog’s bellysindustrial landscapes, and the faces of farmworkers.

In 1935, the Resettlement Administration (RA) was established as part of the New Deal to provide relief, recovery, and reform to rural areas. The FSA, created in 1937, was its spiritual successor. The FSA’s duties included, but were not limited to, operating camps for victims of the Dust Bowl, setting up homestead communities, and providing education to more than 400,000 migrant families. Communicating about its efforts was also part of its mandate…

Stryker sought out photographers, among them Dorothea LangeGordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, and made their images readily available to the press. Given the lack of new photography and art being produced during the Great Depression, the photos regularly appeared in magazines such as LIFE and Look. He also had them displayed at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, the 1936 World’s Fair, the Museum of Modern Art, and other prominent venues. The publication of a series of early photographs, including Lange’s Migrant Mother, proved instrumental in pushing the federal government to provide emergency aid to migrant workers in California.

In the effort to represent the FSA and Roosevelt’s signature domestic achievement in a positive light, the chosen photos captured how the idealistic views of farm life were being tainted by poverty, and how the FSA programs were helping farmers reclaim their dignity. Common elements were decrepit housing conditions, the lack of food and clean water, and harsh work environments.

It was government propaganda, and there were certainly some within the government (both supporters and detractors) who saw it that way, and more who considered both the FSA and its photography project as communist and un-American. In a 1972 Interview, Stryker admits to having felt political pressure from the Department of Agriculture to portray the effectiveness of the New Deal. “Go to hell,” was his response. His photographers “were warned repeatedly not to manipulate their subjects in order to get more dramatic images, and their pictures were almost always printed without cropping or retouching.”

But there is a way to manipulate the story being told without altering the images themselves—the process of photo editing, of choosing which images to highlight and which to discard…

The fascinating story of one man’s (materially successful) effort to galvanize social and political opinion: “How a Hole Punch Shaped Public Perception of the Great Depression.”

And for an equally-fascinating consideration of how emerging new visual technologies might similarly be used to sway sentiment, read Fred Turner‘s “The Politics of Virtual Reality.”

* Richard Avedon

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As we celebrate skepticism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that Nolan Bushnell (co-founder of video game pioneer Atari) opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, ultimately a chain of family destinations that served pizza and other menu items, complemented by arcade games, amusement rides, and animatronic displays as a focus of entertainment (and often, birthday party celebration).  It took its name from its main animatronic character Chuck E. Cheese, a mouse who sang and interacted with guests.  Over 600 outlets are operating today in the U.S. and 17 other countries.

Chuck E. Cheese and Nolan Bushnell (Bushnell on right)

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“It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque…”*

 

Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California atop car with her giant camera. February 1936.

Dorothea Lange started her career in the 1920s as a commercial photographer in San Francisco; but in the 30s, as the Depression took hold, she instinctively tool her camera to the streets.  Then in 1935, Lange began her landmark work for the Farm Security Administration, a Federal Agency. Collaborating with her second husband, labor economist Paul S. Taylor, she documented the troubled exodus of farm families migrating West in search of work. Lange’s documentary style achieved its fullest expression in these years, with photographs such as Migrant Mother becoming instantly recognized symbols of the Depression.

California, February 1936. ”Destitute pea pickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children.”

“Migrant Mother” is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California. Lange was concluding a month’s trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration.

In 1960, Dorothea Lange gave this account of the Migrant Mother experience–

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

Read more of Lange’s extraordinary journey, and see more of her work at the ever-enlightening The Selvedge Yard.

California, March 1937. “Toward Los Angeles.”

* Dorothea Lange

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As we dust, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that the Bank of United States, a commercial bank in New York, suspended withdrawals and closed, seeking protection for the Superintendent of Banks.  The prior day, a crowd had gathered at the Southern Boulevard branch in The Bronx seeking to withdraw their money. Though there had already been a wave of small bank runs in the southeastern part of the U.S. at least as early as November 1930, it was the run on the Bank of United States, reported by the New York Times and picked up by other metros around the U.S., that historians generally agree began the Great Depression.

Crowd of depositors gather in the rain outside Bank of United States after its failure

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“Altering life by holding it still”*…

 

The first of a series of multimedia essays on photography and photojournalism; quoth Leica…

Building on their shared history, Magnum and Leica agreed to collaborate on a series of projects that continue their longstanding dedication to independent documentary photography. Beginning in the spring of 2011, Leica will sponsor the creation of a series of independently-produced multimedia essays that will highlight the personal journeys and insatiable curiosity of Magnum photographers. The stories will be published at the homepages of Magnum Photos, LFI Magazine, and Leica.

And for readers who are inspired, some riveting advice from the extraordinary Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, the photo-documentarian of the underside of New York life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s…

* “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still”- Dorothea Lange

 

As we adjust our f-stops, we might recall that it was on this date in 1947 that player-manager Mel Ott of the (then New York) Giants hit his 511th and final career home run.  Ott, the first National League player to hit 500 home runs, managed the Giants from 1942-48, during which stretch the Giant’s best finish was 3rd place.  It was in refeence to Ott’s easy-going stewardship of the Giants that then-Dodgers manager Leo Durocher made his oft-quoted (albeit somewhat out-of-context) remark, “Nice guys finish last!”

Baseball card on which Ott struck an uncharacteristically-fierce pose (source)

 

 

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