Walter Rhett

Master Works: Dorothea Lange and the Mississippi Photographs

In Arts, Education, History on March 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm

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4th of July, 1937. Hillhouse, Mississippi. (Click all pictures to enlarge.)
Two photographs taken in Mississippi in 1937 by one of America’s photography masters lay in the Library of Congress archives for half a century. Today, I am proud to present these two photographs. I am excited about the remarkable story these two pictures tell.

 Dorothea Lange, a woman trained as a portrait photographer in New York and who apprenticed with prominent society photographers, was the photographer for these two environmental portraits. Born Dorothea Nutzhorn in 1895, as a child she changed her name to her mother’s maiden name after her father left and her parents were divorced. Two of her five photos of a Mississippi woman are overlooked master works.

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A Sharecropper’s Family that moved to Mississippi, 1937

Dorothea Lange took the long road to Mississippi. She traveled west to San Francisco in 1918, and opened a successful portrait studio, married a painter and gave birth to two boys. In 1935, she divorced. She married a economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and as the Great Depression drew near, she begin to make photographic images that documented the impact of the economy on daily lives of her subjects. Her photographs of human character find people on the edge of survival, working in poverty, standing in meal lines, alone, with their family,or in groups. Their faces are a deep study of the impact of these conditions.

Image, Source: intermediary roll film
A Sharecropper from Issaquena County, MS

In 1936, Dorothea Lange was hired by the federal government’s Farm Security Administration’s Office of War Information to travel across the South documenting a rural America. When she got to Mississippi, she photographed the sharecroppers and agriculture of the Delta. Her eye connected the relationships of work to living through the simple mechanism of image and composition. She raised these two photographic techniques to an art which at its best, is still surpassed.


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Negro Children, Mississippi Delta, 1936

 As a photographer, she waited on each story to appear in the faces before her lens. For Dorothea Lange, sharing was a natural action, and she valued what was within. She was not interested in matching her images to variations of external social ideals. She waited untilher subjects’faces got past the apparent doom, relaxed from the usual cliches ,and finally opened a window to her and her camera that offered an inner glimpse into the expressions and emotions held dear in their inner heart. Working with spare back drops of natural settings, a porch or a field, her photos are careful documents of the hardships and hopes that lived and collided within her subjects. Her images somehow acquire and preservean inner strength and vulnerability. Her photos are a window to the inner grace of her subjects, presenting the dignity of their real selves as they face the camera for all to see.


 I think two of her best examples of image and composition are of a Mississippi women who was a field hand, working as a sharecropper in the Delta, that Lange photographed in 1937. This unnamed women has five images in the Library of Congress archives of Lange’s photographs. I was absolutely astounded when I found them. Together they tell a story heard but rarely seen. Photos of Negro sharecroppers , often idyllic and stereotyped, many times expressed the values of outside views of the people and their work.Lange soughtout the inner character of the persons photographed. But Lange also took herself out of the way. She knew how to look for the dignity and real vulnerability within everyone; she knew each person was a hero with a 1,000 faces, and she went beyond preconceptions to capture that moment in which the person emerged unique. She reveled in what she had not seen before. She abandoned formula or familiarity, sparked by the emerging difference that offered a look unseen before. She knew when she had this elusive quality: her photos are one with this transcendent moment.

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Traveling Highway 1, 1938

 The Mississippi woman she photographs offers two extraordinary instances of Lange’s gifts.First is a picture of the woman sitting alone on her porch in a wooden ladder back chair. The woman, a farm worker and sharecropper, chops cotton; she uses a long handled hoe to weed and turn the soil in cotton fields. She is skille in “hoe culture.” She was born, by her own words, two years before the surrender, (the end of the Civil War in 1865). Photograph in 1937, she is likely 84 years old. Like other people Lange photographed, she is unnamed and no located is noted.

The wooden slated or cane-backed ladder chair in which she sits was the most common piece of furniture on rural porches. In the South, and in many rural locales, porches served as outdoor living rooms. From the porch, the sun cast its colors of pink and rose, leaves fell, dust rolled into the wind, wind played across the skin, and the changing light and its display of textures and signaled the swift, silent passage of time.

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Master Work: A Portrait of an 84 year old Mississippi Woman

Lange’s photograph elevates the chair. Its straight back rail is at an offset angle to the vertical boards rising like timbers, towering above the sitting 84 year old woman. The chair is a throne more than a place of rest. It is a fixture exalted by its function. Its special role is to be a gathering place. Sitting here, the elder womanoffers silent, contemplative thanks for the immeasurable gifts of life given by an immeasurable God whose hand and will wrote the sky and colors and trees and fields seen by her living eye, restored her peace after troubles and calmed her fears, and gave her the health and strength she feels within. Look carefully at her face: her eyes are looking within; this wonder is almost too much to contemplate. Her hand supports the weight of this glorious knowledge, this lived experience.

 Each day the woman sits in this chairknowing that God calls to her. Her face is etched with a light filled with bright love. She is seeing something that belongs only to her. Dust, hard work, and weariness can not diminish this place she has entered. In fact, the journey to this place is a praise song deep in the soul. This elder woman has worked and earned a living turning the ground with a long handled hoe. Her real earning shows in the promise of her face, her hand touching her cheek to affirm that this presence that stirs within her is as real as the ground she works. Yet Lange’s composition makes this photo work: she photographs the woman from the side, allowing the viewer to look in. She subtly uses wood, the chair and the long, vertical house boards (rising out of view of the photo) to call to mind the altar chair in a church. Her composition frames and presents this woman’s story.The second shot is deceptive and its features easy to miss. It looks like the stereotypes often associated with this era, but close inspection offers a profound difference. This women, by her own words, born two years before the surrender, in 1863; in 1937, sheis 84 years old!

 At 84, she poses as a life-long, proud farm worker, a skilled laborer, knowing both how to tend a crop from planting to harvest, but also knowing, from long experience, how to preserve her body from the wear of sun and hand labor. Back and neck muscles and worn-out arthritic bones have often put others out to pasture, but she proudly is going on. Smiling, looking straight into the camera, her face expresses her easy confidence, a fierce pride, a lifelong way-making. This second portrait is taken at work rest.

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Master Work: Portrait at Work Rest of an 84 unnamed Mississippi Woman,
A Sharecropper skilled in “hoe culture,” “born two years before the surrender.”

 The details of her longsuccess are in the details of her stance. Her thin frame is at an angle to the hoe. The angle offsets the pulling action of chopping by torquing the pull. As she chops the ground and pulls the hoe to turn the soil, her body twists from her lower back, hips, and thighs. In fact, by the portrait, her action works exactly like a modern rotary tiller, whose curves blades lift and spin the soilin exactly the same way she does with with the pose of her body!Her head is elevated, raised from the neck. Keeping her neck up and her head raised staves off the painful onslaught of arthritic that field workers who bent their necks and dropped their heads suffer from.

 But the signature adaption she has made is easy to miss. Look carefully at her right hand. Her palm is turned out. Her thumb is below her fingers. Pulling out prevents the muscles and tendons from becoming sore and uses the shoulder and back to pull the load as her lower back swings around, using her legs and thighs to complete the action.

 This portrait is a brilliant photograph. It is an anthropological study of advanced farm worker’s techniques. (I can find no other photograph of workers before or after the civil war photographed in a similar pose, showing similar techniques.)

 I am glad to share both photographs with you. Enjoy this remarkable story, connecting the American experience, told by two woman, one whose life touched the 1861 war, experienced freedom as an infant, and hoed the cotton fields of the rural Mississippi Delta; the other, a polio survior, a society photographerwho livedin large cities; both collaborating on a July day in 1937, before and behind a camera set up in the Delta to make these lasting images.

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Sharecropper’s Home, 10 Miles from Jackson, 1937

All photographs by Dorothea Lange from the Library of Congress (available with no known restrictions).

Click here to see the Denver Post’s photo blogs amazing color photographs of America during the Great Depression.  Many of these are from the same time period as above.

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  1. […] Master Works: Dorothea Lange and the Mississippi Photographs (via Southern Perlo) 08 Mar 4th of July, 1937. Hillhouse, Mississippi. (Click all pictures to enlarge.) Two photographs taken in Mississippi in 1937 by one of America's photography masters lay in the Library of Congress archives for half a century. Today, I am proud to present these two photographs. I am excited about the remarkable story these two pictures tell.  Dorothea Lange, a woman trained as a portrait photographer in New York and who apprenticed with prominent socie … Read More […]

  2. i want to get one

  3. A print of this image may be found in the Oakland Museum 1000 Oak Street Oakland CA .

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  5. Reblogged this on The Artistic Spider's Web and commented:
    Master Works: Dorothea Lange and the Mississippi Photographs

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