Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor describe documentary photography in this way “to let the subjects, the living participants of a social reality, speak to you face to face. Having looked at a documentary book, you could no longer be ignorant of them. You had seen their faces.”

I believe this is absolutely true. The photographs revealed the devastation and hardship of the migrant worker’s life. Due to the published photographs of this event, the plight of the migrant worker now had a face.

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother Series: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html

This is a great article on Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother photographs. This article with accompanying photos really shows how difficult and harsh life was for migrant workers. Florence Owens Thompson is the mother featured in this series, which was created in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange explains in detail:

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. (Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

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Paul Strand

I admire the photographic instinct and intent of Paul Strand. I also admire Lewis Hine, who was Strand’s first photography teacher and introduced Strand to the idea of using photography to better humankind.  It’s also interesting that Strand embraced other mediums such as film. (How neat would it be to have the great Lewis Hine as a photography teacher?) Paul Strand got quite an education at the Ethical Culture School. After graduating from this institution he happened to be part of the New York Camera Club another member of which was Alfred Stieglitz. The Photo-Secession movement had just begun also. In 1911 Strand began to work closely with Stieglitz who was a proponent of Straight Photography. Strand’s photographs appeared in Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work, in 1916 and Stieglitz declared, “Strand is without doubt the most important photographer developed in this country since Alvin Langdon Coburn.” Strand’s work along with that of Edward Weston and Stieglitz helped define American modernism and the elegant photographic print now carried incredible value.

After viewing an exhibition at Stieglitz’s at Gallery 291 of avant-garde European art Strand began studying cubism and abstract art. In 1916 at his family lake house he began to experiment with abstraction. These became his first significant  abstractions made with his camera.

Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916


Strand often visited the Lower East Side immigrant slums called Five Points (this particular location is featured in the film, Gangs of New York, staring Leonardo DiCaprio). He would approach a scene with a camera and fake lens (to distract his subject or trick them perhaps), the real lens would be concealed beneath his arm, pointing toward his subject. He was often able to take his photograph unharmed, the subject unaware. Strand sought to capture classic New Yorkers of his time and catalog the diversity of humanity before him:

“I like to photograph people who have strength and dignity in their faces; whatever life has done to them, it hasn’t destroyed them. I gravitate towards people like that.”

A good example of this is Blind, 1916

Like Lewis Hine, Strand sought to capture the crush of cultures that inhabited his urban landscape and document their struggles and poverty. “It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness.”

In the 1920’s Strand took his photography to another level in an effort to describe the movement of the city and became involved in documentary filmmaking beginning with the short film Manhatta (composed of stills and motion film). From 1920 to 1932 Strand made numerous photographs of his wife, Rebecca Strand. Later, Strand moved to France and studied architecture, landscapes, and portraiture.

Lewis Hine

I took a break from blogging for nearly 2 months…and was surprised to discover that my humble photo blog is getting an amazing number of hits. And it seems as if folks really are interested in the history of photography. So, to continue in this vein I will post some of my assignments from a History of Photography course I took not long ago. Hope you all enjoy!

Lewis Hine took up photography in his thirties as a teacher at the School of Ethical Culture in New York. He was given a camera to record social conditions and he took to the medium of photography to study and describe the social conditions of his time. Interestingly, Hine introduced one of his students, Paul Strand, to photography who went on to become a prominent American photographer. Today Hine is known more as a social reformer than a photographer. Due to his discerning eye his photographs evoke hard working people who had skill, physicality, and endurance. He portrayed his subjects, who were often lower class, ‘common people’ with dignity and respect.

This is an early Lewis Hine photo of twelve-year-old Annie Card, a spinner in a cotton mill in North Pownal, VT. In the caption for the photo Hine entitles it “Anemic Little Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill, North Pownal, Vermont, August 1910.” This photo was featured on a US stamp commemorating the passage of the first child labor laws. And a novel, Counting on Grace, written by Elizabeth Winthrop, was inspired by Addie’s photograph and life. This photo is a good representation of Lewis Hine’s work at this time in his life. About this time he was he was the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) having left his teaching position at the Ethical Culture School in 1908. During the next decade of his life, Hine documented child labor to aid the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to end the practice. Fortunately, his efforts paid off and his photos triggered an emotional response garnering support of child labor reform. In this photo Annie is dwarfed by the large industrial spinning machine and most striking to me are her bare feet and the look of hopelessness that encompasses her face (and body language.) She has essentially lost her childhood and any semblance of a life to an industrial monstrosity.

During the Great Depression, Lewis Hine worked for the Red Cross, photographing drought relief in the American South (his second time working for the Red Cross; he also worked for the Red Cross during WWI).  Six-year-old Warren Frakes. Mother said he picked 41 pounds yesterday “An I don’t make him pick; he picked some last year.” Has about 20 pounds in his bag. Comanche County, Oklahoma.  The History Place, Child Labor in America

Sadly Lewis Hine’s career suffered during the Depression (ironically FSA photographers were hired to document the depression as we will see in future posts). Art photography was coming into fashion…Hine became impoverished, lost his house to foreclosure, and lived on welfare. His wife died on Christmas 1938. He died in November of 1940 alone in a state hospital. Tragically,Hine, a school teacher turned social activist/reformer died enduring some of the same social problems he had documented. In summary, Lewis Hine spent his lifetime documenting the plight of the poor and disenfranchised workers and immigrants of the United States. He spent his life helping others using his camera. And his work continues to inspire and enlighten us to this day.

There are several documentaries that cover Lewis Hine, one is America and Lewis Hine released in 1984.

Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past.

If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.

Photography can light-up darkness and expose ignorance.

-Lewis Hine