Why You Should Go See Dorothea Lange at the Oakland Museum…

Thanks to an invitation from our dear friends, Ken and Melanie Light (Ken Light is a well-known photographer who was greatly impacted by Depression photographer Dorothea Lange– and, for the record: his work on the Central Valley is also part of the exhibit), Jon and I went to see the Dorothea Lange exhibit at the Oakland Museum. I can recommend it highly and I hope this piece may trigger you to go there.

Mind you, I’m not a photography expert or scholar but there was something about the famous Migrant Mother picture (see below), and additional pictures taken at the time of that scene, that provoked me.


When Jon and I came home, we watched the two excellent Dorothea Lange documentaries that now play on PBS and we were floored by some of the other pictures we saw. Dorothea Lange was a genius whose portraits show a vulnerable intimacy between photographer and the person who’s staring back at us through Lange’s lens. She captures their soul in a split second, but even her landscapes, a doorway, kids running through a street in Ireland have a pictorial quality, aesthetics and sense of composition that take your breath away.

From what I saw, I realize that Lange seemed to bristle at the term “social documentary” or “social documentarian”, even though she was hired by the government to shoot pictures of how the Great Depression had affected the country. These pictures told more than words, or reports of the Depression, so her pictures were very effective social documentary that, in some cases, led to change, programs and relief. That said, the fact that her pictures haven’t aged and have a timelessness about them, seems to stem from her mission that it was not about “circumstance” but “universality.” Her pictures, she seems to say, are not about the Okies on their way to the Promised Land (California), but they are snapshots of what she called “the human condition”.

Now, back to the Migrant Mother. Lange stumbled on the scene and made several pictures– apparently, she promised that the pictures wouldn’t be published and Lange didn’t even ask the woman’s name. The picture was published and became one of the most iconic pictures of the Depression, and, as one of the documentaries implied, one of the most famous pictures that came out of America in the 20th century. As the picture went “viral” over the years, the identity of the woman wasn’t revealed until much later. She was Florence Thomson, and not, as everyone had always assumed, a white woman but the descendant of Cherokee Indians. Thomson never received anything for the picture and while the exhibit slanted this message a little by saying Lange didn’t make much money off this picture either, the picture did bring her fame and may have led to the Guggenheim she subsequently received. When Thomson fell ill later in life, the fame of the picture did lead to some funds to pay for her health bills, but that was it.

Iconic as the above picture may be, I have always experienced the picture as somewhat staged– the worried look in the distance, the hand to the face, the averted gaze of the clinging children… Was she waiting for her husband to come home, or was she waiting for God(ot)?

It wasn’t until last night, that I saw one of the other pictures in the series and this one, to me, is the more powerful one:


Mother and child, as old a composition as the devotional paintings of Mary and her infant, but here (as opposed to the other picture above) we get to see the wide angle of the rattiness of the surroundings, the ragged clothes, the tent pole, the jumble of clothes in the background, the dirty dish, and look at the box she’s sitting on: Is it a box for beer (ale)? It almost reads Happy Tale, which obviously, this picture contradicts in every way.

The woman’s gaze is introverted, not upon the landscape that has betrayed her and her family, but she seems to be focusing on her own thoughts and worries. And then there is the breastfeeding. In a country where women today still cover themselves in entire tents not to be seen breastfeeding, this woman lets it all hang out, quite literally. She has nothing to hide anymore, nor does the half tent behind her which cannot even contain her family or her stuff.

The luminescent white breast looks almost distressed and empty, an apt metaphor of how the country had sucked people dry in the Great Depression. The fatigue that this picture exudes is also quite overwhelming. The child seems to have fallen asleep without the defeated mother noticing and while she holds on tight to the baby, her attention is elsewhere and not fixed on the baby. And yet, a mother’s love cannot be denied. The family was hungry on a daily basis; the children they interviewed many years later told us that the mother would spare food out of her own mouth to give to the children, and even though her breast might have been partially empty, she gave everything she had left to her baby. This picture says more about the hunger and drama of the Depression than the more famous one above.

So to me, this picture is just as iconic, so why wasn’t this picture picked and proliferated? You’ve guessed it. It was probably because of the breast. I mean, on American television, genitalia are always blocked out with out-of-focus bars which has always looked ludicrous to me.

The human body, I’ve always told my kids, is part of Nature and nothing to be ashamed of. Showing a woman breastfeeding is not pornography. This is as sacred a picture as a painting of Mary and her baby Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci. The real obscenity here was the poverty and the circumstances that caused this picture. Yes, I’m sorry, this is Henry Miller territory again but it shows, I hope, that America’s relationship with the human body was and is still a troubling one. Lange and Miller were virtual contemporaries and their ways of seeing and documenting scenes (warts and all) was quite similar, yet America averted its gaze, like the two children in the top picture.

A country that cannot look at the human body or will prevent others to see the human body is a country that doesn’t want to look in the mirror, and thus lacks introspection and a level of maturity.

Under the current regime, we’re entering Dorothea Lange country again but we avert our gaze from some of the root causes, taboos and that which is right in front of us: People trying to provide for their families without the least bit of government relief, health care or help.

Go see that exhibit, and go watch those documentaries on PBS: Pictures do speak louder than words.

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