I came across the PBS documentary Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning recently (follow the link to watch the film online for free) and ended up devouring pretty much everything I could on her. I watched the two hour documentary that her granddaughter, five-time Emmy Award winner and cinematographer, Dyanna Taylor made on her grandmother, Dorothea Lange and came away wildly inspired, filled with sparks. Here are a few of the sparks that Lange & Taylor’s film have left me with.
1. Good photography takes unrelenting single-mindedness.
“When you’re working well it is first of all a process of getting lost so that you live for maybe two, three hours as completely as possible a visual experience.” DL
One of the main things that stood out to me about DL’s photographic career was the single-mindedness with which she pursued it and the many sacrifices she made to make her work. This is something that I have noticed when investigating the lives and careers of master photographers that I admire. They approach their photography very seriously, plunging not only their eyes but their whole lives into the visual experience of the world and the documentation of it.
The film particularly notes the fact that DL is a mother and that she decided to send her children to live somewhere else so she could continue to make art. This behavior, and such absolute single-mindedness, has historically been okay for men to engage in, but when it comes to a woman, and more importantly a mother, we frown at it and shame them. DL was single-mindedly pursuing photography, choosing it over everything else including her health up until her very last breathe. She died of esophageal cancer while going through, editing and organizing her photographs for her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There are film clips of her digging through her archives of photographs while struggling to swallow, clutching her head and coughing. I don’t know that I have ever seen such focus or drive. Yes, I think the threat of death can do a lot to fix your mind toward what you really want, but those who knew DL state in the film that she was that way her entire life. Driven. Focused.
TAKE AWAY POINT: Be single-minded with your art.
Now, personally I don’t have kids and so I can’t say whether or not I would send them off to live someplace else so I could make photographs. That’s just not what my life looks like at the moment. However, there are plenty of things I could go without (Netflix, naps, some worldly comforts and pleasures) that would definitely make me a better photographer. What are you able to give up or put to the side to be better?
“Sometimes you annihilate yourself. That is something that one needs to be able to do.” -DL
2. Use what your Momma (Nature) gave ya.
When DL was a child she came down with polio and because of it she ended up walking with a limp. All her life her family was worried that she wouldn’t be able to attract a good husband or marry, and so her mother encouraged her to walk as “normally” as she could. DL learned to conceal her limp to a certain extent, but also stated in the film that she had learned to become invisible because of it. She stated, “I have a cloak of invisibility around me. When I was a little girl I became acquainted with walking down the bowery. A lame girl was a raw deal. I learned to be unseen.” This power of invisibility aided DL in her photographic pursuits as she was able to walk amongst her subjects and be unseen with her camera.
TAKE AWAY POINT: Use whatever hand you were dealt to it’s fullest potential.
I have always been an emotional person, easily affected by the feelings and experiences of others. This has made me into an artist and also a therapist. I have learned to take my sensitive nature into the therapy room as well as on the streets and into the studio with my camera. Somedays I walk away from a day of shooting street photography and have to be alone for a long time simply because the world is kind of a fucked up place. It’s also a beautiful place. And these two things are constantly pulling at me. I try to capture them with my camera to make sense of them. And I also try to help people heal and live through it in the therapy room. My sensitivity to emotion and the pain of others could destroy me, but instead I use it to make my photographs better.
3. Allow yourself to be affected.
One of the main things I took away from the film was just how affected DL allowed herself to be by her own work. She made probably one of the most famous images of the great depression (Migrant Mother) by allowing herself to feel, be swept up and swept in. DL also documented resettlement camps (aka prison camps) for the Japanese living in the US after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The military tried to censor DL from making many of the photographs, and actually impounded the images for many years. DL continued to make the images when she realized the terrible thing the US was doing. As a result of taking the photos DL was fired from her position and went home with giant stomach ulcers.
TAKE AWAY POINT: Allow yourself to feel everything. Then photograph it.
If it gives you stomach ulcers it will probably give other people stomach ulcers too. And people don’t change when they’re comfortable. Photography is a powerful medium in this way. It can finally help people to visualize and put a face to some of the horrors that occur in the world. DL put a face to desperation and hunger in the dustbowl during the great depression with her photographs. Some people would argue whether or not photography can change the world, but after the image of the migrant mother was published donations poured in. Similarly, when Steve McCurry’s photo of the Afghan Girl, also probably one of the most well-known photographs in the world, was published in National Geographic in 1985 donations rolled in again. What about Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl? I remember the first time I saw that image. I think I was twelve or thirteen and it was reprinted in a copy of National Geographic that my dad had tucked next to the toilet in the bathroom along with a bunch of other reading material. That image was, and still is, seared into my memory; it is what I think of when I think of war the same way DL’s image of the migrant mother is what I see in my mind’s eye when I think of the Great Depression - mainly because of the emotion the images convey.
4. Get personal with your subjects.
“Before I ask any questions I tell them who I am, why I am there, how many children I have, how old my children are. I can then take out a notebook and write down exactly what I’ve been told without ever feeling that I am imposing.” -DL
Some people may really disagree with this approach to photography - speaking with the subject that you’re photographing. It could be interpreted as influencing the scene. However, I think this approach of talking with the subject can be quite useful and can allow you to get the images that really reveal the person’s inner being and personality rather than their guarded self. I employ this approach a lot when I am making street portraits. I like to stop and talk to people, tell them a bit about what I am doing and ask them a few questions about themselves. And, slowly, they reveal themselves to me. When the picture does not have to be made without influence or the photographer’s interruption I definitely prefer to talk to people.
TAKE AWAY POINT: When it feels right you can talk to your subjects.
5. There’s no decisive moment.
In street photography we’ve been taught to try and capture THE decisive moment and we’ve been fooled into thinking that you either get the photo the first time and it’s perfect or you don’t get it at all. And this is bullshit. When you really begin to investigate the negatives/outtakes of master photographers you begin to see that they rarely took a single image of a scene and walked away. They actually stayed and worked the scene, getting it from different angles and distances. DL’s most famous image was taken and retaken and recomposed a few different times before she moved on to photographing something else.
TAKE AWAY POINT: Follow your instincts!
Get low. Get high. Get far. Get close. Work the scene. Feel it out. Don’t be afraid to hang around. Make sure its right. Don’t snap and run. Take your time and take a few different shots.
“Beauty appears when one feels deeply. Art is an act of total attention.” -DL
6. You’re making history with your camera no matter what you do.
The personal is political. I would argue that there is historical and political importance to every image that you make no matter what - even if it’s just of your feet. You may be making personal photographs, but as a person making pictures you’re also a historian. And it’s serious fucking business. Your #selfies are fucking radical.
Every image you make is rooted somewhere in history, and speaks to the human condition - whether you’re trying to speak to it or not. You just are. And it doesn’t matter if the photo is taken with a Leica M9, your cellphone, on film or a 1 megapixel camera. It doesn’t matter.
TAKE AWAY POINT: You’re a piece of living history and so is everyone else. Remember that.
Dorothea Lange: Further Reading & Links
An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion
Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography
Dorothea Lange: Drawing Beauty Out of Desolation NPR
Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk of Lightning DVD
Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field
Dorothea Lange: Photographs Of A Lifetime (Aperture Monograph)
Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment
Grab Hunk of Lightning