When I think of people who inspire me, there are some names that instantly spring to mind. John Steinbeck, Abraham Lincoln, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, as I comprise a mental list, there is one thing that they all have in common. They are all men, with the exception of one.
I came across Dorothea Lange five years ago when I first started my A-Level’s. For a long time before I started my 6th form studies I was curious about the medium of photography. I’ve always thought myself to be a creative person and had an eye for the camera, but never was I able to gain an understanding into the technical aspects of the medium.
Upon enrolling on the A-Level Photography course, we were all assigned a professional photographer. For the next few months we were to undertake a research project surrounding this assigned photographer. I, of course, was allocated Dorothea Lange.
Most famed for her iconic images of the Great Depression, it is Lange’s highly celebrated image entitled ‘Migrant Mother’ that was the catalyst for my ever growing appreciation towards her and her work.
The ground breaking image, produced in 1936, depicts a grief stricken mother as she cradles her baby, whilst two of her other children embrace her. The mother, who was later to be named as Florence Owens Thompson, is the only subject within the frame who is clearly visible to the viewer. Though she is not acknowledging the camera, the sorrow engraved onto her face is evident. She is looking out into the distance, appearing to be deep in thought. At the time that this image was taken, the poverty stricken family had just been forced to sell their tires to provide for themselves. It is clear to the viewer by the sombre expression on the subject’s face that she is bearing a great burden on her shoulders. To provide for a large family at such a time of struggle has clearly taken its toll on the mother and she has aged beyond her years.
Her children avoid the presence of the camera, shunning its glare by hiding their faces into their mother’s shoulders. They are young, and you can judge by the rags that substitute for their clothes that they are not fulfilling the innocence of childhood that they should be at their age. They have clearly seen hard times and turmoil that nobody, yet alone young children, should have to experience. Upon closely examining the baby perched on its mothers lap, you can see that it has dirt on its face. These children have lost their childlike wonder at such a tender age.
Despite the struggle and heartbreak that this family, and so many others, were facing at the time of their documentation, there is something admirable about Florence Owens Thompson. Her head is not hung, but instead it’s held with a sense of dignity that one cannot help but admire. There’s something in her eyes that makes the audience think that she has yet to succumb to defeat. She’s looking out into the distance, as though she is waiting for better days to come. Through her stone cold glare there is a glimmer of hope.
Ever since being introduced to Dorothea Lange, her influence has shone through in my projects. After studying Photography during my A-Levels, I went on to study Media Arts at the University. Having a lot of creative freedom during my three-year studies, I was given the privilege of choosing what medium to focus my projects around. Naturally, I chose photography. Always keeping Dorothea Lange in the back of my mind, the vast majority of my projects have been based around social documentary. Past projects of mine have included documenting protestors taking a stand around the city of Plymouth, as well as photographing the lives of Eastern European farmhands living and working in the Southwest of England, among others.
What I found most captivating about Lange’s work is the ability to become invisible with her subjects, something that I strive to achieve. Granted, there are those images where her subjects are very aware of the cameras presence, but it is the images where her focuses do not recognise the camera, like that of the ‘Migrant Mother’, that draws me to her work. She had a way of documenting the world around her without becoming a part of it. She was a master of social documentary, setting the way for many aspiring photojournalists, including myself, for generations to come. Her poignant images have a way of capturing a diverse range of emotions that is rarely seen within the work of contemporary photographers. As I continue to carry out my own photography projects, she is always at the forefront of my mind as I endeavour to mimic her enthralling style.
When I look back at my years at university, I find it hard to imagine I would have been able to achieve my degree without the influence of Dorothea Lange. For a long time I’ve attempted to channel the mastery that Lange was able to embody so effortlessly, and I’m unable to see her influence leaving my side in the years to come.