Dorothea Lange: Closer to Me
Join us for this intimate 1965 documentary of American photographer Dorothea Lange. After learning about Lange’s journey from “the studio to the street,” you’ll also see as Lange works with John Szarkowski, the then director of photography at MoMA, as the two curate photographs from across Lange’s career for a landmark retrospective show.
Welcome to the "All Arts Vault."
I'm Shanelle Gabriel.
The Vault is the place to go for special access
to all things arts, so we're going into the archives
to uncover some of our greatest gems
and share these programs with you
as they would have been seen decades ago
when they first aired.
Today we're featuring the second episode
of a two-part 1965 documentary series
about the landmark American photographer Dorothea Lange.
This program, written and narrated by Richard Moore,
intimately follows Lange at her home in Berkeley, California,
while in conversation with Dr. Peter Odegard,
a professor of political science at the University of California.
Lange would sadly pass away from cancer only months
after the filming of this piece.
However, she speaks with stark clarity
about the enormous undertaking of living a visual life,
as the photographer puts it.
During this episode, you'll see Lange examining the legacy
of her photographs, recalling how she came to work
for the Farm Security Administration,
and hear her plans for a photographic project
to be carried out by a new generation of photographers,
and, of course, you'll get to see several of Lange's
most iconic images,
ones that continue to move audiences to this day.
We hope you enjoy "Dorothea Lange: Closer To Me."
One should really use the camera
as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind.
To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking...
But when the great photographs are produced,
it will be down that road,
but I have only touched it, just touched it.
Narrator: This is a film about one of the great photographers
of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange.
At the time of her death in October, 1965,
Dorothea Lange was involved in two major works,
one, an exhibition of her photographs
with the Museum of Modern Art,
and two, plans for a photographic project
to be carried out by a new generation of photographers,
a project whose roots can be found
in the Farm Security file of photographs of American life
during the Great Depression.
The first work, the exhibition, was completed.
The second, a project which remains in idea form only,
is Dorothea Lange's unique legacy
to the young photographers of today.
One of the people with whom she discussed her project
was Dr. Peter Odegard, professor of political science,
University of California.
These are the roots.
I mean, what I encountered
and what we who worked in Farm Security,
what we experienced was so unique
a thing in the history,
the short history of photography,
that it has really made up this group as sort of a group apart.
A lot of this is expected of us,
and the education that the government gave us
I don't think was wasted.
But no second project has followed.
The reasons for this then, perhaps many.
I don't know.
But for years, it was in the back of my mind
that we ought --
We photographers who were engaged in it
might take on that commitment to say that some other group --
Not for the sake of the photographers,
but to the advance the medium itself and its possibilities,
a second group should
be given the assignment
to photograph our national life,
but this time with emphasis on the cities.
That's been the big shift.
Why that shift has occurred and what that shift has been
is one of the things that has not been photographed.
Odegard: By the cities, you mean the whole metropolitan areas,
including the suburbs? Yes.
I mean the new metropolis.
Mm-hmm. The new megalopolis.
The power and the importance of visual evidence
is the germ of the project.
It isn't "collect more photographs."
There are many photographs made.
We have picture magazines.
We have many uses.
But, actually, the world is not being photographed at all
because it's only the spectacular, the sharp,
and maybe often the bizarre episode.
But the underpinnings that human condition is lacking.
The photographs about nothing very much
which describes human life.
This has been on my mind and in my mind for years.
In fact, ever since I realized
what we had done in Farm Security,
the value of that project is now proven.
It's a repository, a cultural history
that only gradually has crept into people's consciousness.
It grew under the hand,
actually, of the photographer's responses.
No one was ever given exact directions,
"Go here and do so and so." I assumed that.
You were turned loose in a region,
and the assignment was, "See what is really there."
What does it look like?
What does it feel like?
What actually is the human condition?
Narrator: When Dorothea Lange spoke of the human condition,
she spoke from direct insight and experience.
No one has photographed the human face more directly
or with clearer perception.
In Georgia, 1937.
San Francisco, 1934.
Lange: The human face is the universal language.
The same expressions are readable,
understandable all over the world.
It is the only language that I know,
communicative thing that is really universal.
It's shades of meaning.
It's explosions of emotion and passion all concentrated
on just this part of the human anatomy
where a slight twinge of a few muscles
runs the gamut of that person's potential.
Narrator: As she worked on the exhibition,
the enforced examination of a lifetime's work reinforced
for Dorothea Lange the basic approach to photography
which she hoped would be carried out in the project.
As I said, this has been in my mind for years.
I suddenly realized it's time to give it a shot.
When I saw "The Bitter Years" and saw its effect,
how it served those who looked at it,
how it really extended their comprehension
of what those years were like, which I'm sure it did.
It encouraged me to say, "It's time."
Narrator: "The Bitter Years" was an exhibition assembled
by Edward Steichen from the files
of the Farm Security Administration,
the collective effort of a small group of photographers
directed in the '30s by Roy Stryker.
Circulated with great public success
by the Museum of Modern Art,
the exhibition was one example of the photograph
as source material,
and of the editing or selection of the sequence of photographs
to make a statement about man
and the natural and social circumstance in which he lives.
It is the extension of this principle
into the photographing of the urban society
of present-day America
that Dorothea Lange sought in the new project.
As I conceive it, it's a project that lasts for five years.
That's all. It is not self-perpetuating.
It begins, and it ends,
and the photographs that it holds serve as --
Well, the word nowadays is "benchmark."
What has happened is measured against it.
What will happen is measured back to it.
Ideally speaking, in another 15 years,
it should be done again,
but not as a thing which continues and maybe dissolves.
It must be done with very sharp purpose,
and with great energy, I believe, by young people.
These are source photographs. Yeah.
They raise questions that are not answered.
They are question-raising photographs.
They are not answer-giving.
So that it leads a person into something.
I made a photograph that I had forgotten all about
until I saw the negative the other day,
going through an old box.
It was made during the war in the shipyards,
the end of a shift,
and the shipyard workers were coming down steps,
and the camera was down at the bottom of the steps,
and it was a mass of humanity from all parts of the country.
They had their tin hats on,
and they came down in this river,
but what made the photograph so interesting
was that they were all looking in different directions.
They were not a group of people united on a job.
It showed so plainly in a very revealing photograph.
Yeah. Well, what's the difference between
an illustrative photograph
and the kind of photograph you're talking about?
Can you tell this in words?
I'm not sure I can,
but the area in which
I'm assuming that this young photographer enters into
in photographing modern cities
is not to highlight it.
Not to make the kind of picture that illustrates the concepts
that have already been formed in people's minds
in order to bulwark a popular conception.
Now, that's a very big order not to do that.
Not to do that.
That's training, and that's discipline,
and that makes this new photographer --
He's a new breed.
He's a new breed.
He starts at a different place.
His observation may be incomplete.
but it's based on personal, direct --
I don't want to use the word research.
Exposure to what's really there.
Narrator: To Dorothea Lange, exploring reality involved
a process that she called getting lost,
detaching herself from all the holds on her
in order to live as completely as possible a visual life.
That frame of mind that you would need
to make very fine pictures
of a very wonderful thing is different
from the frame of mind of being on the pavement,
jostled and pushed and circulating
and rubbing up against people with no identity.
You cannot do it by not being lost yourself.
When I said I am trying to get lost again,
I really expressed a very critical
point of departure,
and not very easy to do
because you always have to do practical things --
Be home at 4:30 and remember to get the butter
or get to the post office before they close, you know.
Narrator: In the final months of her life,
with the knowledge of imminent death a daily fact,
Dorothea Lange continued to work
and to refine her ideas of photography and its uses.
Lange: Oh, I can think of things that we don't photograph
that we could photograph, that we never attempted.
I, who realize the great potential that there is in it
to photograph your family, I haven't done it either.
The things, of course, that are very near
to you are very difficult,
and...the camera has not probed it.
The business of attempting or working in the photograph
into the life of those near and dear to you
is an introduction to the other.
It's an introduction to the other.
What would I do with the camera
if I did what properly belonged to me?
That's the question that isn't asked often enough.
But that is the question that underlies them all.
I only would say I never had gone close enough, not really.
The middle distance, and the big wide shot is never my shot,
but closer for me.
When I push close, it's right for me.
Narrator: Over her lifetime, Dorothea Lange
explored a world greatly in need of scrutiny.
The project was for others to carry on,
but her work in photographing California
over a period of 30 years suggests the way.
Lange: My photographs start 30 years ago
with the first automobile loaded with a family,
which was the first drought refugees,
dust refugees family, that I encountered.
Narrator: This was a period which saw the word "migrant"
and "migratory labor camp" become everyday words.
In 1935, working under the Federal Emergency
Relief Act, Dr. Paul Taylor of the University of California
undertook a study of the needs of these displaced people
and of their effect on the state.
He had seen some of Dorothea Lange's work
and hired her to help him,
though she had to be officially designated as a typist.
Their report, in words and photographs,
was unprecedented and led directly to the establishment
of federally sponsored camps for migrant people,
a program which later spread over the entire nation.
The report also gave great impetus to the creation
of the now-famous photographic project
of the Farm Security Administration.
Lange: Tom Collins was managing
one of these government-established camps
for migratory workers.
It got so that when he hoisted the American flag
every morning over the gate of that camp, it was his camp,
and he protected it from the outside world,
and he just was master,
although he was dedicated to the benefit of the people.
It was a most curious combination,
but he was a great fellow for picking up rich
and interesting histories of the people
who lived under that with him, behind those gates,
where that American flag flew, believe me,
and it flew in there.
He started all kinds of --
oh, people getting together to find their own ways out, so on.
And John Steinbeck somehow or another encountered him,
and Tom Collins is a big figure in the book!
He is. I'd forgotten!
Tom is that camp manager in "The Grapes of Wrath."
I'd forgotten that myself.
I am really sort of, in a way, a chronicler.
Every once in a while I think, "Oh, I've got to remember that."
Narrator: The Depression years were followed
by the violent years of the war,
and with it came a new and different wave of migration.
Lange: These were the defense years,
war years, shipyard years.
Everyone was working, and there was overtime
and swing shifts and graveyard shifts,
and everyone in the family worked,
and the migratory workers settled down
and slept under a roof,
and the Negroes kept coming in droves,
leaving the cotton fields of the South,
and everyone was welcome.
Narrator: Following the war, population growth
and urban expansion in California
developed at a rate never before anticipated.
Lange: It was explosive and too much
for any part of the country to take all at once --
too much, too fast.
Narrator: Though cut short time and again by serious illness,
Dorothea Lange strongly felt
the need to record these profound changes.
As Californians, you and I
have witnessed a really remarkable phenomenon.
We sit here and are in a world
that's teeming with...
unfamiliar ways of living.
We're submerged in it,
a wonderful and phenomenally beautiful place
is expressing a civilization
which is our responsibility, and we are watching it happen.
We are building a curious world here.
We are creating this environment almost without scrutiny.
Narrator: Her painful awareness that she would not be able
to complete the exploration of the new California reinforced
her determination to lay the groundwork for her project.
This is a kind of of a project
you can't explain right down to its base.
You can't dot all the "I's" and cross all the "T's."
This is a gamble.
It is to really -- to attempt the unobtainable.
It really is.
You go in that direction because you're exploring a field
that hasn't yet been opened up.
The artist photographer is not a fellow who's attracted
by a disciplinary procedure like this.
Actually, it is not a discipline.
It seems so to one who hasn't done it.
It depends how intense your alliance
with the outside world is.
Many artist photographer's alliance with the world
is very slight.
Their alliance is to themselves,
and their effort is to translate the outside world
in terms of their needs,
and this other fellow, this new photographer,
he's a different breed.
He expresses --
His responsibility is to the outside world.
His alliance is very great with it,
but as a byproduct, if he does it very well, indeed.
He creates a work of art, but he never knew it.
Narrator: Throughout her career, Dorothea Lange
considered photographic beauty
as a byproduct rather than a goal.
The main objective was to fill a need,
and it was because of this that the strength of her vision
was effective to a degree which sometimes surprised even her.
Man #1: That's the beat cop, isn't it?
Or is that another one?
Man #2: There are a couple of beat cops.
Yeah, but that's the famous one isn't it?
Isn't it reversed? Lange: No.
Girl: Why is he so famous?
Just look at it quietly and then --
Why is he so famous for?
Well, people have used it a lot in lots of books.
I have made two photographs in my life
that have really taken hold.
They've really taken root all over the world --
It embarrasses me. They're no longer my own --
for some peculiar, strange reason that I don't understand,
that I haven't the answer for.
There is something in them
that has reached people all over.
The camera is an instrument
that teaches people how to see without a camera...
to see different relationships,
things that are contiguous.
Narrator: From the individual photograph
to the complex statement of ideas
through the medium of photography,
Dorothea Lange has enriched the medium itself,
and, to an immeasurable degree, our own perception of the world,
and, to the very end of her life,
her attention was directed toward the work
of those photographers whose names we have yet to hear.
There could -- I don't say "would."
I don't even say, "This will be a great project."
I say, it could be that there could come
a really definitive volume on this country,
really revealing, giving its look, its texture,
its feel, its difficulty,
Not made to show how great we are,
but to show what it's like.
I'm sure that historians, people generally,
would see things that they've never seen.
That they never saw before.
And this seems to me the great appeal of --
The visual mind has a very great contribution to make, Peter.
And it is not being employed, and it's time.
The camera is a unique instrument for this.
I'm not saying that the visual mind
doesn't come express itself in many other ways,
but this is a peculiar and a powerful instrument
for this purpose of saying to you,
or saying to the world in general,
"This is the way it is.
Look at it. Look at it."
"The human face is the universal language."
This, from Dorothea Lange,
gets at the heart of Lange's photographic philosophy,
and as Richard Moore says in this episode,
"No one has photographed the human face more directly
or with clearer perception."
In viewing Lange's work, and particularly the faces
and expressions she's captured throughout her career,
one can catch glimpses of a universal human condition
that transcends race, creed, and gender.
Lange's photographs communicate unspoken experiences
that are at the heart of who we are.
We hope you have enjoyed this peek into the "All Arts Vault."
We'll see you next time.