Lange captured Depression's soul Art review: Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange's remarkable work helped form our mental picture of hard times.

February 06, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California" (about 1936) is one of the most famous images in the history of photography, and deservedly so.

We see the mother from the waist up, seated, with a baby in her lap and two older children clinging to her. She and the children are dressed in little more than dirty rags, and the baby has a dirty face as well. These are people reduced to the deepest poverty.

But there are thousands of photographs of people in poverty. Two factors above all make this photograph great. One is its extreme close-up, pushing in on the figures from both sides, confining them, symbolizing that their lives have been reduced to this one spot -- that they have nowhere to go.

Then there's the look on the mother's lined face. Worry and deep anxiety show in this face. But not despair. If she looked as if she jTC had given up, the picture would invite much less emotional investment from the viewer. The fact that the possibility of hope has not totally disappeared from that face is what makes us ache for her.

Lange, who lived from 1895 to 1965, was one of America's greatest documentary photographers. Her 1930s pictures of migrant workers and other poor people in the South and West, many taken for the federal government's Farm Security Administration, have helped to form our mental picture of Depression-era America. They are at the heart of "Dorothea Lange," the exhibit of some 80 images spanning her career that opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art tomorrow.

What enabled Lange to invest her work with its singular depth and richness of emotional resonance was an identification with the suffering of her subjects that was a consequence of her own life story. "When she was 12 her father left the family," says Jan Howard, BMA associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs. "And when she was 7 she had polio, which left her with a lifelong limp. This semi-handicap humbled her and gave her an identification with people whose lives were difficult."

Indeed, her sense of identity with those in trouble drove her from a comfortable career as a portraitist to a documentary photographer when she was nearing 40. Born in Hoboken, N.J., she began her career by apprenticing with New York portrait photographers, and also studied with the pictorialist photographer Clarence H. White.

In 1918, "she and a friend decided to take a trip around the world," says Howard, "but when they got to San Francisco their money was stolen. So she stayed there and someone helped her set up a studio."

She spent more than a decade doing portraits of socialites -- until she couldn't stand it any more.

"In the early 1930s, Lange's growing dissatisfaction was catalyzed by the political and economic trauma of the Depression," writes curator and art historian Keith F. Davis in the exhibit's accompanying book. "Motivated by the social turmoil around her, Lange took her camera from the studio into the street, tentatively at first, and then compulsively.

"While Lange recorded innumerable scenes of destitution, she consistently evoked the resilience, faith and determination of her subjects," he writes. "As a result, her photographs celebrate the basic strength of the American character."

It's that strength -- that refusal to give up -- that makes "Migrant Mother" so moving. We can see the quality over and over in Lange's work. We can see it in the face of "Ma Graham, an 'Arkansas Hoosier' " (1938) whose grandsons had left home for California to find work. "When you see 'em out there," she told Lange, "tell 'em you were talking to old lady Graham, in Arkansas."

We can see it in the faces of the five men pictured in "Former Texas Tenant Farmers Displaced from Their Land by Tractor Farming" (1937). And in the face of the woman in "Rural Rehabilitation Client, Tulare County, California" (1938), who was, Lange's notes tell us, an "Arkansas mother come to California for a new start, with husband and eleven children."

This exhibit, which comes from the Hallmark Photographic Collection of Kansas City, traces Lange's career from the early 1930s to the early 1960s. It includes work from World War II, from a series of courtroom pictures of the 1950s, and from her late travels to Egypt and the Far East.

The depression photographs may be the heart of her work, but its salient qualities are consistent throughout. One is a deep response to body language, no doubt a result of her consciousness of her own handicap. "She was sensitive to the expression of the body, the face, the gesture," says Howard. "Even the legs, or the gesture of an arm reveals something about the person."

There was also her great technical ability, which resulted in extremely fine prints when she had full control over her work. That quality comes through strongly in this exhibit, thanks to the Hallmark collection. Davis, who is fine art programs director for Hallmark, calls their Lange holdings "unique and pretty important. The quality of the prints is extremely high. Most were acquired directly from Lange's descendants. The majority of the prints were given by Lange to her sons and other family members."

'The Photographs of Dorothea Lange'

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 31

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

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