Art Doc of the Week | Dorothea Lange: An American Odyssey
Midway through Dorothea Lange: An American Odyssey, the narrator gives one key to Lange’s success as a photographer of people struggling through the Great Depression: “She shot them from a low angle so they looked down on her.” That’s one of many techniques Lange devised to engage people who were on the margins of society. Determined to treat them with respect and generosity, she hoped her photos would shine a light on their plight for oblivious fellow Americans. Anyone who has ever seen her work can testify to the empathy and compassion with which she framed her subjects.
American Odyssey is just under forty minutes long but it gives a compelling and wide-ranging overview of Lange’s life and career. That includes the childhood polio that left her with both a lifelong limp (and a profound appreciation for the fragilities and vagaries of life), her guilt while navigating career and motherhood, and the groundbreaking work she did documenting migrant camps, sharecropper shacks, American internment camps for Japanese Americans, and “the erosion of people from America’s heartland.” Her education, early career travails, and the development and fine-tuning of her politically charged aesthetic (whose stamp is everywhere now, though not always with Lange’s consciousness and conscientiousness) are all rolled out as a steady stream of photos fill the screen – both stock photos to give context, and lots of Lange’s own work.
The effect of that is an honoring of Lange in a way that may be accidental because the subject matter that became dear to Lange’s artistic heart – the struggles of the most marginalized in society – itself becomes as much the focus and “star” of the documentary as Lange and her work. Given the political and cultural battles currently being waged around immigration, poverty, a grim job market, race, and immigration, Lange’s work proves to be not only timely, but timeless.
All photos are by Dorothea Lange. The header photo is of Florence Thompson and her children, in the iconic Depression-era photo, “Migrant Mother,” shot by Lange in 1936.