Dorothea Lange used photography to make an ugly world beautiful

Philip Kennicott

NEW YORK (The Washington Post) – The woman in Dorothea Lange’s most famous photograph, often labelled simply Migrant Mother, is, among other things, rather beautiful.

Her face may be weathered and lined with care, but it also suggests sensitivity and intelligence. She is tired but handsome, rather like the man in the 1940 photograph Migratory Cotton Picker, which opens the exhibition “Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures” at the Museum of Modern Art.

Their beauty isn’t often remarked on. Rather, these photographs are bound up with words, with their captions and with a larger cultural conversation about poverty and despair in America during the Depression and after.

Migrant Mother was made in 1936 but wasn’t known by that title until 1952, and the woman in the image, Florence Owens Thompson, remained anonymous to the larger public until 1978. She is an icon of American suffering and perseverance, and she is also Cherokee, another word not appended to the image until decades after it was taken.

It may seem obvious, even uninteresting, to mount an exhibition about how words are attached to photographs.

This happens all the time, so often that we don’t think about it. In newspapers, every image is captioned.

‘Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona’ (1940) by Dorothea Lange. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
ABOVE & BELOW: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas’ (1938); and ‘Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California’ (1936)

When we read biographies or history, we reflexively turn to the photographs in the middle of the book to attach images to the words we have absorbed.

We are fast approaching the two-century mark in the history of photographs, and we have never been more suspicious and verbal in our relationship to them: What does this image show? Where was it made? Can I trust it?

But that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout the history of photography, especially among photographers who began making photographs as art, there has been a contrary argument about words and images: A good photograph shouldn’t need explaining. If photography is art, and art is self-sufficient, then photographs should stand alone and convey their meaning through the image, not its description.

Lange made some of the most compelling images of the past century, but she had no problem with words, and would have been impatient with any discourse that abstracted photography from the larger world.

“All photographs – not only those that are so called ‘documentary’… can be fortified by words,” she said. It’s a curious choice of words.

“Fortified” means strengthened, in particular against any effort to assault or dismantle the image. Lange’s images were often confrontational – calls to conscience and part of a lifelong interest in social justice, fairness and decency – so they needed to be fortified against indifference or cynicism.

Many of her photographs also appeared surrounded by words, in such popular magazines as Life and Look, and in books known as phototexts, with accompanying poems or poetically evocative statements culled from conversations with the people depicted. Lange also took extensive field notes while photographing, and, working in the 1930s with her husband, the economist Paul Schuster Taylor, she contributed images to extensive government reports documenting social conditions during the Depression.

Her images also inspired words from others, including John Steinbeck. In 1938, poet Archibald MacLeish used Migrant Mother in a phototext called Land of the Free, where it appears opposite a line from a poem he wrote to “illustrate” images made by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies: “Now we don’t know,” which was an enigmatic way of suggesting a creeping anxiety that had infected the American Dream.

The same image also appeared in Nazi propaganda in 1943, with a mocking reference to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The range of ways that single image has been used and abused helps one understand why many photographers are wary of using words to define images.

But limiting oneself to the image alone doesn’t fix its truth any more than a good or bad caption.

When Migrant Mother was reproduced in a bulletin for MoMA’s first photography exhibition in 1940, it was printed much lighter than other versions, so that the woman appears not just white, but pale, her arms almost bleached out, and the hair of the two children who hide their faces behind her is almost blond.

It feels like a racial erasure, with any hope of seeing her as Native American effectively whitewashed.