by Jess Clarke
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]orothea Lange, one of the founders of documentary photography, is widely known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration. Her iconic portrait, the Migrant Mother, (a woman of 32, homeless with her children, stranded in a shabby tent outside the pea fields of Nipomo, California) 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 by advocates for better conditions for migrants inside and outside of the Roosevelt administration.
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 1930s.
Now, 60 years after that first housing was built, the federal government has cruelly refused to house homeless people in 466 units of prime housing at the Presidio in San Francisco; homelessness is epidemic all over the country; and the social programs constructed in the ‘30s and ‘40s are being dismembered, one after another. The hostility toward ‘Okies’ and ‘red’ unions that ruled California politics in the ‘30s has been replaced with hostility towards Mexican and Asian immigrants and Republican attempts to abolish overtime pay. The landless farmers seeking work in California now come from Michoacan, not Mississippi.
Lange and the photographers, writers, and activists who worked with her in the ‘30s 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 work 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. In a recent series of writing workshops focused on her work at the Oakland Museum of California and the Oakland Public Library, I invited a group of writers, photographers and activists to re-examine Lange’s work, and reflect on it in light of the growing crisis of homelessness and injustice facing society today.
Over six weeks, more than 60 writers joined us in viewing her images. “See straight and true and fast,” recommends Lange, and that’s what we tried to do. Each week we took on a different theme: immigration, homelessness, criminal justice, forced relocation, work, community, and family. Each week 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 in the ‘20s; the exodus of African Americans out of the South and into the urban centers; the forced relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry to internment camps; the role of the public defender in the criminal justice system; and intimate portraits of her family and friends. In each of these series, Lange addresses large social forces and themes through individual photographs that are, most often, compelling sketches of a situation, a character, a mood.
As we worked through Lange’s images, we kept a focus on connecting these historical photos with what’s going on today. Scott Braley, an Oakland photographer who has taught photography to East Bay youth and homeless persons, presented 50 images he and his students had taken of today’s homeless people. Ken Miller, who recently collaborated on a multi-media piece at Theater Artaud called “Take me to the Tenderloin, Now!”, offered images of Vietnamese and Cambodian children and teens living their lives on the streets of the Tenderloin.
‘Look to the inner meaning’
With both Lange’s photos 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.”
When I look at the image of the nursing woman (Drought Refugees, 1936), it is the expression of the boy which hypnotizes me, draws me back inside myself, and leads me to a profound sense of sorrow and loss. Something fragile, the trusting love of a child, has been lost in his eyes. The fear in his eyes echoes the empty sorrow within me — reminding me of another Lange photo, Cemetery, Imperial Valley, 1935. There, an empty mason jar bereft of flowers is the only offering at Manuel Osuna’s grave.
On the other hand, in Girls at Soquel Creek, 1930, I see a carefree summer with my sisters, swimming endless circles in a tiny plastic pool, an oasis of cool safety amidst oppressive Washington heat, and familial abuse and neglect. Lange’s photo evoked my own poetic recollection:
head under in the cool safety of a
we are air fish
water rat escapees
in the house down the hill.
For the participating writers, the journey through Lange’s work has been an odyssey through their own experience as evoked by the image. The photo, Child and Her Mother, 1939, was used on the cover of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. A poet in the workshop, Holly Goodwin, sees incest in the picture: the mother 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.
Maketa Groves, a poet and educator, writes poetically to an “Ex-slave with a Long Memory” (a Lange photograph from Alabama, 1938 ):
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
The powerful feelings evoked by these pictures moved us at our deepest and most personal levels. Moving out from that powerful place, we can create work about what is really happening around us. Lange’s pictures open windows through which we can feel our interconnectedness.
Looking at Maynard’s Hands, 1930, Eric Robertson imagines or remembers the hands of a man sharing food at St. Anthony’s Dining Room in San Francisco. Seeing Bracero arriving in the U.S. by train, Victor Or imagines or remembers a moment of discrimination as a “woman covers up her deaf ears/ with the shawl of indifference/ …as if my accent would fracture her sanity.”
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.
It is the movement of the heart that measures our involvement in transforming the wounded world. And in the process of the writing workshop, hearts moved. The grandsons and granddaughters of European and Irish immigrants, the great-grandsons and daughters of Africans enslaved, the sons and daughters of Nisei taken to internment camps, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, we all projected ourselves into the positions of the subjects in the photos, engaged in conversations with these strangers as they became inner characters. We also engaged in conversations with one another about racism, homelessness, and work; about lyric, story, and poem.
Now we extend a further invitation. “Mic check what I etch-a-sketch,’’ raps A.K. Black in his poem “There’s a War Goin’ On” — ‘listen to what I’m saying.’ And that’s what we ask the readers of these poems to do: Listen to voices from the underside of history as the authors describe our inner experience of the scenes and people portrayed in the photographs accompanying this article.
In the final years of her life, in the early 1960s, 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 she could not establish an institutional forum that hired photographers the way the Farm Security Administration did.
Nor did she live to see the growth of the social movements of the ‘60s. Nonetheless, she informs and inspires those who follow her path and has left volumes of powerful imagery that we can turn to when we seek a mirror of the Americas.
Continuing in the Lange tradition, photographers Scott Braley and Ken Miller document the side of American life that is forced to live in the shadows, in the brush under an overpass. The writers in the Encounter with Lange project try to give voice to these images and to see the human faces of the poor. Join us in this 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 Braley’s photos: “We are each others’ shadows, reflections of our own selves in each other.”
Jess Clarke has produced books and multi-media performances with New Earth Press, Freedom Voices Press, the Pearl Ubungen Dancers and Musicians, Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center and the Media Alliance.