Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photojournalist. Her photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression. Lange was unarguably well-off with the profession of taking portrait photos for the rich, but she later devoted her entire career to traveling around the country and recording the real poverty-stricken society by taking portraits for migrant workers.
I was incredibly impressed by the portraits and moved by the story behind. Lange’s captions are mostly simple. One example is her most renowned work Migrant Mother: “Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936.” Nothing more, but just enough for us the readers/viewers to establish a connect with her. Now that we’ve seen her face, and we’ve known her name. In comparison to a lot of the other photographers and authors who add on their own description of the story, not to mention some of them were not even authentic stories that actually happen to the men in the photos, Lange’s captions were succinct enough to create even stronger empathic power. However, I still can’t help but feel many of the photos are posed. Not to say that my compassion for the migrant workers was weaken in any way because of this, but sometimes it really just jumped out of the picture and caught my attention. Many less known portraits seem more candid than the best known ones including Migrant Mother. Considering that in the world of art, it is universally acknowledged that the most powerful works, regardless of its realm or era, have clearly defined structures and a predetermined focuses. So the notion that Lange’s best work seem a little too rigid, posed, or too perfect to be natural seems nothing but surprising.
But then it comes to the question of whether such portrait works should be manipulated in any way. Quite frankly, I can’t think of any art work that is not manipulated. In paintings, music, certainly true, as they are created through pure origination and full “manipulation.” Even in photography that has no moving subject, cropping, or photo-shop involved, it is true as well because the photographer pinpoint a section of the object or the scene around and record it down, purely based on the message he or she wants to convey. For the Depression-era photos that were taken completely out of chance or luck with no posing, the photographers still deliberately picked the subjects and chose to let the viewers see it under that circumstance. How could you say it’s just another form of minor manipulation? Arts originate from life, and are higher than life. But some may argue that art is not propaganda because it doesn’t aim to implant an idea into the viewers’ head. However in my opinion, arts always do as well. It’s just they are more personal, less political, more diverse, less straightforward and often less effective than Propaganda. There is always something in every art work that the author wants us to believe in. But we simply sometimes can’t capture or comprehend it, or happen to relate to it in an unexpected way. With this in mind, I completely understand if Lange posed some of her photos. She was very clear about her purpose. After all the photos were for the FSA and conveying a message is the whole reason why Lange devoted her career into this. Given that a purpose is clearly recognized, viewers at that time should have already had the expectation before they observe the photos. Therefore, it is not even comparable to seeing an artwork.
Moreover, Lange is a good example of those who become more eager to devote to making the world a fairer place after they see more of the unfairness. I can’t help but wonder if I would do the same if I were her? Meanwhile, there are endless examples, especially in the world of finance, of people who gradually can’t afford to be more altruistic or idealist because they exhaust everything in their endless attempts to be bigger, stronger, and faster. Some may say Lange’s decision was more like a career transition. Plus, helping people makes one feel good as well. However, is there really true and absolute altruism in the world? If paying attention to the needed and helping others can’t make us feel good in any way, what’s the chance that there will be any philanthropy remaining at all? The roses in her hand; the flavor in mine.