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Analysis of Two Pictures by Dorothea Lange Essay

Dorothea Lange is one of the America’s most renowned documentary photographers. Yet her works can not be considered as “purely” documental. Lnge’s ability to demonstrate the inner world of her heroes and her masterful photographic techniques placed her works in the middle between photography and art. In this paper I will attempt to review and analyze two Lange’s photographs: “Human Erosion in California” (“Migrant Mother”) and “Child and Her Mother”. I am going to analyze them in terms of style, symbolism and influence on future Lange’s career and development of the art of photography.

“Human Erosion in California” and “Child and Her Mother” are separated with the period of three years being made in 1936 and 1939 respectively. This was a time when Lange was about forty and her talent flourished reaching its highpoint. At that time she made her name as a social critic, as her matter of primary concern was the fate of poor and dispossessed people . “Human Erosion in California” is probably her most famous picture touching this theme. More broadly, Lange was interested in the people as they are and people in different situations.

The “Child and Her Mother” is more a psychological than social work, or, better to say, a work on human psychology in a stagnating society. Here Lange could apply her experience she received working with Maynard Dixon and in the portrait studio to develop her own original style . The picture that later became known as “Human Erosion in California” or “Migrant Mother” was originally made in California in 1936. This picture that became almost an iconic vision of the Great Depression depicts Florence Owens Thompson, a Cherokee woman whose husband died in 1932 leaving her with five children and expecting the sixth child.

Describing their meeting Lange wrote: “I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. 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. ” Lange has made several pictures of the same model to find the best perspective. The most famous of the pictures she made demonstrates a prematurely aged woman sitting in a camp with two underage children cuddling to their mother. The woman looks both tensed and tired.

Her look can not be called desperate, she rather seems to be disappointed and desolated. A woman can not afford herself to become frustrated as she has to care of the babies. Despite of all her grieves she looks strong and decisive. This picture places a model in the centre while the details of the background are unimportant. Much later Thompson told that Langer promised her not to publish the picture and to send her a copy, yet she did neither. Officially the picture was made for the government and Lange never received royalties for it, but this work was a landmark that contributed greatly to her success.

20 000 pounds of food arrived to the camp where the picture was made after publication of the picture, but Thompson has not received any since she had already moved in search of work . Durden observes that many of Lange’s pictures “focus on the expressive potential of the body’s gesture” . This is true for the “Migrant Mother”, but this feature of Lange’s work can be most obviously illustrated by the “Child and Her Mother”. The picture was made in 1939 in the Yakima Valley near Washington. It is less famous than the “Migrant Mother”, yet not less brilliant as it presents another aspect of Lange’s talent.

“Child and Her Mother” is a socio-psychological work combining the view of a teenage frustration with social blunders. From the artistic point of view Lange used a different composition in this picture. In contrast to static “Migrant Mother” this photograph presents movement and tensed rhythm. A child, who can also be perceived as a young girl downcasts her eyes linking against the wire fence while carefully observed by her mother. Both stand on a sandy desert land burned by sun, but the mother attempts to cover her eyes while the daughter keeps them open.

It appears that the girl is trying to escape the life that her mother has lived in order to overcome sadness and poverty . Lange’s work in the times of the Great Depression are not unique. Not less famous are, for example, works of Arthur Rothstein. Yet Lange is distinguished by her profound sympathetic understanding not of the social phenomena, but of the people suffering from it. This is a kind of “female view” of the Great Depression as an event that revealed the hidden sides of people’s characters. For this reason Lange’s pictures would hardly be lost in the stream of her contemporaries’ works.

Works Cited: 1. Partridge, Elizabeth. Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange. Puffin, 1991; 2. Meltzer, Milton. Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life. Syracuse University Press; 1st Syracuse University Press Ed edition, 2000; 3. Durden, Mark. Dorothea Lange. Phaidon Press, 2006; 4. Spirn, Anne Winston. Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field. University Of Chicago Press, 2008; 5. Maksel, Rebecca. “Migrant Madonna”. Smithsonian magazine, March 2002. http://www. smithsonianmag. com/arts-culture/Migrant_Madonna. html retrieved April 27, 2009.


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