Provocations of Dorothy Lange
I am simply awe struck by that thought. Read it again, please and then read the next quote.
“This benefit of seeing...can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image...the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate.”
Let them both sink in. Then think about your day.
I awoke this morning at 5:00 a.m. and was unable to stay in bed, my head was swirling with a list of tasks that I thought I absolutely had to get done before I could lay down to sleep in the evening. I got up, checked my e-mail, had a glass of water, read the news on the internet. Realizing that this had taken me an hour and half, I rushed through a shower, shaved, got dressed and hurried out of the house to catch the bus into work. Totally lost in my own thoughts and continuously pondering all that I thought I had to get “accomplished”, I got on the bus and arrived at the office just before eight o’clock.
I do occasionally dare to observe people around me on the bus or in some queue waiting to pay their purchase, and I often see a “To Let” sign in their gaze, a disinterest of frightening proportions, a self-occupation to rival that of any Hollywood star. And I wonder if that is what I appear to others?
We are so busy, chasing one thing or another, running around like ants in an effort to stay just that tiny bit ahead of all the demands that we feel we have to fill that we have forgotten to just “see”. “Smell the roses” to employ a overused cliché, is almost a thing of the past. In our desperate stampede to some destination that we have no map or directions for, we really have lost the use of our eyes.
The only time that I am sure of taking the time to notice, observe and “see” is when I have a camera obscuring my face. That is when time no longer intrudes upon my existence, when there is no imaginary “to-do list” that hinders my vision. The camera brings me back, it anchors me to the world in which I really do reside, it allows me to use all my natural senses and just be. No longer does some indefinable and unattainable “journey’s end” dictate my unthinking pace. Proof that I am not really blind after all. Shame that I need an artificial eye to realise that in actual fact there is something of interest and of beauty no matter where I go, pity that it is a box full of electrical components that forces me to “see” the people milling around me. If I can do that with a camera, what excuse do I have not to do so without one?
Dorothy Lange is possibly best known for the pictures she took of the desperation and dispossession during the Great Depression. Her most famous image “Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936” is a testament to the amazing “sight” that any photographer should aspire to and to the compassion and empathy that a photograph can illicit from a viewer. If you haven’t ever looked at that picture, forget this article and go look at it. That picture really is worth a thousand words (oh dear yet another cliché, I really am full of them today).
Also, check out her work during World War II when she documented the internment of Japanese-Americans. You can quite clearly see not only the pathos of those affected, but also the contempt and disgust that Dorothy must have felt at such a senseless and completely unjust policy as worded in the following couple of quotes.
“This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?”
Oh dear, this is potentially turning into a sermon on what the possible moralistic duty of a photographer. So allow me to switch gears and quote Dorothy on something more physical.
“…put your camera around your neck along with putting on your shoes, and there it is …an appendage of the body that shares your life with you.”
Another master advising all us wannabes to eat, drink and sleep with our cameras. To paraphrase some pretend Hollywood marine sergeants “The camera is your best friend. It is your only friend.” Ha ha ha, told you I was full of them today. Anyway, we’ve heard that particular piece of advice ad nauseum and if it hasn’t become part of your instinctual behavior by now, I don’t know why you are reading this.
“Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion...the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.”
“Art is a by-product of an act of total attention.”
I love the second one. It just says it all, and I don’t think I can add anything without detracting something from the value of that brilliant phrase.
Many thanks for your indulgent perusal of my ramblings.
Photo credits: Abdul Sami Haqqani.
Camera equipment: New and Old