Dorothea Lange: What She Saw on the Street

Dorothea Lange began her photographic career as a portrait photographer to the high society and arty types of San Francisco. But her growing awareness of the Great Depression and the social inequities that went along with it, as well as the rampant capitalism of the times (nothing’s changed really. If anything, it is worse now than it was then) got her thinking about using her camera to try to change things, to bring awareness of poverty and injustice to the power elites and to the decision makers.

With that in mind, she ventured out into the streets with her camera. At first she was nervous about invading people’s privacy; she expected hostility from people she photographed in the street without ‘permission’. She was surprised to find that, if people actually noticed her at all, they didn’t mind her making a photo of them.

On reading the marvelous Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by historian Linda Gordon, I was so interested to read about Dorothea’s first forays into the streets. Let me quote a little from the book. After the author speaks about Lange’s nervousness and surprise at how welcome (and safe) she felt while photographing in the streets, she says:

‘On such reassurance her whole photographic future rested.’ She then goes on to quote Lange herself: ‘I can only say I knew I was looking at something. … Sometimes you have an inner sense that you have encompassed the thing … You know then that you are not taking anything away from anyone, their privacy, their dignity, their wholeness.’

Of course we know that in that future Lange went on to produce some of the most important and iconic photographs of all time. She did more than this: she produced tens of thousands of photographs, interviews, notes and books that played a pivotal role in bringing services and help to many thousands of people badly affected by the Great Depression in the United States. In these important ways she played a valuable role in recording the social and economic as well as the human history of that dark period. And, on top of all this, I was surprised to learn in this book that she was instrumental in the staging of the ground-breaking Family of Man exhibition in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

What is that she knew she was ‘looking at’? What was the ‘thing’ she had a sense that she’d encompassed? Answer these two questions and we will understand why she believed (as I do) that she was taking nothing from the people she photographed.

That ‘something’ she was looking at was, I believe, real people going about their real lives in the street. Remember, she had been a high end portrait photographer posing her sitters in high fashion for photographs that were for display in their mansions. Now, suddenly, she was observing ordinary people. On top of that, many of those she saw and photographed were out of work and destitute. Many roamed the streets dressed in ragged clothes looking for work or lining up for relief or a free or cheap meal. This was real life and not the artifice of high society portrait making.

And that ‘thing’ she felt she’d encompassed? I think this was that knowing street photographers sometimes have when they feel they have recorded that mostly invisible essence of a person, what they are feeling or experiencing. Perhaps it is also how we feel on those rare occasions when we have been able to discover a more universal truth in the person and the scene we are photographing.

All (or at least some of the more sensitive) street photographers will know that it is when they are relaxed and feeling ‘okay’ with the environment they’re in and the vibe of the street, that they are more likely to have these glimpses of ‘something’. The fact that Lange felt welcome and safe and experienced little or no hostility, suggests to me that there was a ‘meeting’ of photographer and photographee. It is in this meeting that we realize nothing is being taken from the people photographed. There has been no invasion, no taking away of dignity. Both the photographer and the photographed come away from this meeting whole and having lost nothing.

For me this meeting of equals, a meeting in which nothing is taken but much is given, is a vital element in my work as a social documentary and street photographer. For me it is a sharing, the sharing of a moment that by all usual definitions would be called ‘ordinary’. But, as you will have read elsewhere, I don’t believe that there are any ordinary moments. In the moments I share with the people I photograph, I hope to experience a glimpse, at least sometimes, of that ‘something’ Dorothea Lange talks about. It’s in those moments that I know I am witness to something unique and special and far from ordinary.



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