Workshop and Book:
Image and Imagination: Encounters with the Photography of Dorothea Lange
By Ben Clarke
In six weeks, over sixty different writers joined me in viewing a selection of her images. Each week we took on a different theme drawn from the intersection of Lange’s work with contemporary reality: immigration, criminal justice, forced relocation, homelessness, work, community and family. As we did so, we engaged in a simple, yet complex process: viewing a photograph; drawing out impressions and feelings; crystallizing words and phrases; then shaping the resulting images into poems, stories and personal essays.
Dorothea Lange, one of the founders of documentary photography, is best known for her Depression Era work for the Farm Security Administration. Her iconic portrait, the Migrant Mother, has been reproduced thousands of times. Her moving images of Midwestern farm families forced off the land by drought and the corporate takeover of farming were used in the struggle to establish government social programs and collective bargaining rights for workers in the thirties. Lange, along with her second husband Paul Taylor, participated directly in fighting for the establishment of clean, safe, affordable housing for the poor. Taylor claimed that the first federal public housing ever built in the United States came about because of their efforts (a Resettlement Administration camp built in Northern California in the thirties.)
Now, sixty years after that first housing was built, homelessness is epidemic across the country, and the social programs constructed in the thirties and forties are being dismembered, one after another. The hostility toward `Okies’ and `red’ unions that ruled California politics in the thirties has been replaced with hostility towards Mexican and Asian immigrants and by Republican attempts to abolish fundamental worker gains, such as overtime pay and the eight-hour day. The landless farmer picking crops in the central valley today, is more likely from Michoacan than from Mississippi. And we are in urgent need of creative responses to the conditions around us.
Lange and the photographers, writers and activists who worked with her in the thirties, sought to mobilize the public to action on behalf of the dispossessed. Sympathetic depictions of the plight of the Midwestern refugees were used in congressional hearings, educational forums and exhibits that exposed unsafe and unsanitary working and living conditions. Lange and Taylor advocated support for strike activities by unions, the establishment of work cooperatives and an end to discrimination against migrants. Their synthesis of word and image in advocacy broke new artistic and political ground.
As the dislocations of the depression gave way to the upheaval of the Second World War, Lange’s photographic work shifted as well. Despite her opposition to the policy of internment, she was hired by the newly established War Relocation Authority to document the incarceration of over 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. While her tenure with the agency was brief, she created a series of images which were later helpful in winning reparations for the injustice to the internees, and which provide a moving record of government misconduct.
Lange’s work after WWII was limited by health problems but in the following decades she created impressive photo essays on the public defender in Alameda County, the people of Ireland, the flooding of Berryessa Valley, overseas trips with Taylor, profiles of American country women, and Mormon communities of Utah. Throughout this work, she continued to take subtle and sometimes overt advocacy positions about the critical problems around her.
The book Image and Imagination is a result of a creative re-examination of Lange’s contribution to social documentary in the United States. As writer-in-residence at the Oakland Museum of California and the Oakland Public Library, I invited a group of writers, photographers and activists to participate in a series of creative writing workshops with the following in mind: How does Lange’s archive of American images relate to our situation today?
“See straight and true and fast,” recommended Lange to aspiring artists, and that’s what we tried to do. In six weeks, over sixty different writers joined me in viewing a selection of her images. Each week we took on a different theme drawn from the intersection of Lange’s work with contemporary reality: immigration, criminal justice, forced relocation, homelessness, work, community and family. As we did so, we engaged in a simple, yet complex process: viewing a photograph; drawing out impressions and feelings; crystallizing words and phrases; then shaping the resulting images into poems, stories and personal essays.
We looked at Lange images of: a Hopi reservation she visited around 1930; the exodus of African Americans out of the South and into the urban centers; the war time boom of shipyard workers in Richmond and Oakland; the forced relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry to internment camps; the role of the public defender in the criminal justice system; intimate portraits of her family and friends; and of course, her documentation of the dislocations of the Depression. In all of these photo essays and assignments Lange addressed large social forces and themes with individual photographs that are almost always compelling sketches of a situation, a character, a mood.
As we moved through Lange’s images, we also considered the work of two contemporary photographers. Scott Braley, an Oakland-based photographer who has taught photography to East Bay youth and homeless persons, presented fifty images he and his students had taken of today’s homeless. And Ken Miller, who recently collaborated on a multi-media piece at Theater Artaud called “Take me to the Tenderloin, Now!” offered two dozen images of Vietnamese and Cambodian children and teens living their lives on the streets of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco.
In a companion process, twenty children in first and second grade at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley were guided by Margot Pepper, one of the guest artists in the museum and library workshops, in creating their response to Lange’s images via poems and drawings. Their work is also part of this volume.
With both Lange’s photo series and the contemporary images we kept in mind Lange’s admonition: “The print is not the object, the object is the emotion the print gives you. Look past the print to the inner meaning.”
For example, when I looked at the image of the nursing woman in Drought Refugees, 1936 it was the expression of the boy which hypnotized me, drew me back inside myself and led me to a profound sense of sorrow and loss. I felt that something fragile the trusting love of a child, had been lost in his eyes. This emotion was echoed by the emptiness I experienced looking at another Lange photo, Cemetery, Imperial Valley, 1935. There, an empty mason jar, bereft of flowers, is the only offering at Manuel Osuna’s homemade grave marker.
On the other hand, in Girls at Soquel Creek, ca. 1930, I saw a carefree summer day with my sisters, swimming endless circles in a tiny plastic pool, an oasis of safety amidst oppressive Washington heat, familial abuse and neglect. I wrote these lines:
“head under in the cool safety of a summer swim
we are air fish
water rat escapees
in the house down the hill.”
For the participating writers, the journey through Lange’s work was an odyssey through their own experience, as evoked by the images. Holly Goodwin saw incest in the picture Child and Her Mother, 1939. (It was used on the cover of Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard out of Carolina.) Perhaps the mother is shading her eyes, not from the photographer or the sun, but from something she can’t bear to face. Something that her child, clinging downcast to barbed wire, knows but cannot say.
In Bittersweet Ode, Lucha Corpi enters the “memory of that night” her daughter died, “where death is renewal/ and day the extension of a dream/ without borders.”
Working from the image of the girl in the serape, Abena Songbird’s voice becomes that of her ancestors, “one wail rising/ wind through dried cornstalks/ their bones rattling.”
The feelings roused by these pictures move us at our deepest and most personal levels. And at the same time, they create openings into that subterranean river of our collective consciousness.
In To an Ex-slave with a Long Memory, Maketa Groves moves through her imagination into the experience of the brutalities of the 19th century.
I am very close to you now
I see the scars
left by the beating
as you fought for the child
from your nipples
as milk fell
white and naked as their hatred
and their faces
as they told you
the fields were waiting”
Similarly, A.K. Black in Riddle of Steel, taps the reservoir of 20th century Black rage in inner city neighborhoods like Hunters Point (H.P.).
As a youngster, I started out as a punkster
A violent mugster, intelligent thugster
On the streets of H.P, a young A.K.B.
The penitentiary was my destiny…
But these acts of imagination themselves prove that imprisonment within the confines of the dominant society’s definitions need not be our fate.
Margot Pepper sings out with the freedom voice in her piece I Am Northamerican.
I am heady jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythm,
Funkadelic and Chopin,
Pre-Columbian and Renaissance,
an exile, a dreamer,
I’ve earned the right
as my country
the people of the world.
She demonstrates that it is possible to embrace the contradictions which otherwise might tear us apart. This is true not only within each person, but between us.
In New Okies, Clifton Ross walks the bridge between the experience of the California immigrants of the thirties, the Okies, and the immigrants from Mexico of today. In Relocation Project, Wanda Sabir explores the parallels and divergences between the African `relocation’ and that of the Japanese. Throughout this book, Lange’s pictures open channels through which we can experience our interconnectedness.
In the final years of her life, in the early 1960′s, Lange envisioned a project in which teams of photographic artisans would return to the countryside and cities, documenting ordinary life in America. Talking about the conditions in agriculture that she had spent so many years documenting, Lange cited the United Farmworkers as winning the first advances in working conditions for migrant farmers since the movements of the depression. But Lange couldn’t establish an institutional forum that hired photographers the way that the Farm Security Administration did. Nor did she live to see the growth of the social movements of the 60′s. Nonetheless, she informs, inspires and encourages those who follow her path with volumes of powerful imagery that we can turn to when we seek to look for a mirror of the Americas.
Continuing in the Lange tradition, photographers like Scott Braley are documenting the side of American life that is mandated to live in the shadows in the brush under an overpass. In bringing this work to the public we endeavor to go a little way toward what Richard Oyama calls us to in his poem cycle Black Room, “History must be told in/ the voice of the victim/ not the lies of the victor.”
“Mic check what I etch-a-sketch,” raps A.K. Black in There’s a War Goin’ On And that’s what we ask the readers of this book to do: listen to voices from the underside of history as we describe our experience of the scenes and people portrayed in the accompanying photographs. Travel with Maketa Groves as she tracks her inner journey through Family History, “I exist where/ the heart was cut out/ ripped across/ miles of regret and anger/ as lushness/ fell to metal/ as Africa became/ Mississippi became Michigan/ became California/ the new land.”
Walk the streets of San Francisco with Abena Songbird as she encounters Native Americans, homeless in the land in which their ancestors were the first human inhabitants. With Richard Oyama, explore the relationship between the Cherokee trail of tears and the Japanese experience of internment. “We shared a common crime/ being irredeemably ourselves/ by those who thought us/ irredeemably Other.”
Kitty Costello, viewing Girls at Soquel Creek, writes:
We shed every layer,
grow lighter by the minute
…sprout small wings,
fly to the future
beyond our heartbeats
no witness but you.
Please join us in our attempt “to look past the print to the inner meaning.” See if you might catch a glimpse of your self, for, in the words of Rufus Hockenhull, subject of many of Scott Braley’s photos, “We are each others’ shadows, reflections of our own selves in each other.”
Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Public Library
© 1997 Ben Clarke
From Image and Imagination: Encounters with the Photography of Dorothea Lange, Edited by Ben Clarke