Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Real and Reality

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is one of my favorite photographers. It only helps that she was born in NJ. Whether you recognize her name or not, you have most likely seen her work. And it is probably her most iconic photograph "Migrant Worker." Ms. Lange was a talented photojournalist whose most widely circulated pieces are images documenting the Great Depression.

I love Lange's work, and her approach to photojournalism is something that challenges me every time I pick up my camera. Rules might exist to be broken, but Lange had three rules she always adhered to: "Whatever I photograph, I do not molest or tamper with or arrange. Second: a sense of place. Whatever I photograph, I try to picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third: a sense of time. Whatever I photograph, I try to show as having its position in the past or in the present."

It takes an enormous amount of patience and time to wait for and capture timeless real images, but I believe the amount of satisfaction one receives from such an image is at least tenfold. Lange's thoughtful approach to photography and her respect for subjects is evident in her account of taking the above photograph in 1960:

"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."

It is also mildly amusing that despite her purist approach to photography, Lange was not opposed to a little old school Photoshop work. Here is the original unedited version of "Migrant Worker."

While the original is still a great photograph, it was definitely helpful to remove the mother's thumb from the post and to add a little more contrast to the image. If you go back to the original image, you'll notice traces of the thumb on the post. You probably didn't notice before because the inherent impact the image has. Your eyes are naturally drawn to the mother's eyes.

If the mother of American photojournalism embraced a little dodge and burn, there's no reason why photographers shouldn't engage in a little image clean-up from time to time.

I wonder what Dorothea Lange would think about hobbyist photographers cheating their clients while shooting in auto and Costco offering gallery wraps. It's amazing how much the world of photography has changed over the years. One thing that will never change is that the best continue to hone their craft and invest in themselves. The rest just fade away like thumbs in Dorothea Lange's photograph.

My most recent pieces of photojournalism(more like faux-journalism):

The social issues of our day are going to have to wait. Life sort of revolves around this little guy for now. But I am getting very excited about working on some new projects. Stay tuned.


  1. congrats to you and the baby mama, sam!! he is a stud muffin!!! =) thanks for exposing us to dorothea lange- her comment about the give and take approach to her work really resonated w/ me. keep blogging- your posts inspire me!!

  2. maybe you should heed Dorothy's advice, stop molesting and tampering...