Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange: Eyes of the Depression
In the year 1929 United States had suffered from the notorious Wall Street Crash. Its effects spread widely so much so that people in great numbers in financial difficulties rushed to the banks to draw out their savings and as a result thousands of banks had to close as demand for goods declined significantly, factories were closed down and unemployment rose alarmingly. This era was remembered as “The Great Depression”, which rapidly affected not only the United States but also foreign countries all over the world.
Great depression adversely impacted the social life in the United States and created a cultural crisis at the same time. Many photographic projects started in that era to cover the unforgettable crisis, among which the most famous was the one, which was sponsored by the Federal government to provide relief to the unemployed or the displaced farmers. This project was sponsored by Historic Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA), which was later named as Farm Security Administration (FSA). Through this project, many American photographers came into prominence, among which two are more important, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
Walker Evans was born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1908 his family was migrated to Kenilworth Illinois. He enjoyed this change; in 1916 his family moved to Toledo, Ohio, which was an industrial city. Evans did not like this change and this move had disturbed him psychologically (Rathbone). He was educated in Andover and William College. He came to New York in 1920; his basic intention was to become a writer. Metropolitan Museum of Art described his early life in New York as,
“Supporting himself with odd jobs, he taught himself to use the camera as a writer would a pen—to inscribe the meaning of what he saw around him. His early photographic projects, some commissioned, some self-motivated, examined aspects of contemporary American life and it’s environment-the streets of New York, Victorian architecture in New England, the Brooklyn Bridge. He made abstract compositions of electric signs, sidewalk displays, and shadows cast by elevated train platforms, and documented the city with the combined interest of the historian and the anthropologist. Evans found in these subjects an authentic expression of what was most American about America, and his lasting achievement was to express that sense of indigenous national character in his photographs. He wanted his work, as he once said, to be "literate, authoritative, transcendent” (Hard Times).
Analysis of his Great Depression Photographs
Evans used his camera as brush, which painted and printed the culture of United States society during the great depression era. Evans often used 8x10 view cameras, set to its subjects without any commentary or showing any over-romanticizing. This is his realism, which gave a simple and yet comprehensive and profound image to his photos.
His work was different from other FSA photographers who tried to promote the feelings of “hope, heroism and humanity at the request of United States government”. Evans did not want to use his camera for propaganda purpose, which is why his photos depicted that he took anonymous and disinterested focus towards the subjects and yet the purity and simplicity of the photos were extraordinary. He captured bare facts with his camera not the propaganda. Critic John Szarkowski, in his book, described his photos as, “ poetic uses of bare-faced facts, facts presented with such fastidious reserve that the quality of the picture seemed identical to that of the subject" (Hard Times).
Evans photographs were itself subjective in nature but they create an aura of objectivity with their clear simplicity and stark reality. His negatives depicted that he never took two pictures from the same angle but these all, different photographs worked as building blocks or as the parts of a jigsaw puzzle which revealed a clear and objective picture when combined together.
Evans used the technique of semiotics beautifully in his photographs, which made these photographs the artifacts of a genuine artist rather than mere photographs of a photographer. In all of his photography, emphasis on semiotics was always one of the main themes. With the help of his semiotics, Evans described the culture and society of United States during the era of depression. Signs in Evan’s photos not only revealed the culture of dominant social group but it also depicted the interaction between the cultures of dominant and non-dominant groups of the Society.
Evans took the photographs of people, events, buildings and other objects of depression era. These photographs gave us the inside of the lives of people, events, buildings etc. these photographs revealed the texture of life during the era of depression. The unromantic way of presenting American culture and society and his literary satire has shown the influence of Baudelaire and Flaubert. From Flaubert, he learned the simple and realistic presentation of objects while Baudelaire taught him how to use photography to record history. According to Trachtenberg, Evans built the edifice of his photography on literary techniques of, “eloquence, wit, grace, and economy, as well as structure and coherence, paradox and play and oxymoron" (Trachtenberg, p. 241). Evans did not consider photography as mimicry of literature, but according to him photography is itself a language.
Evans’s pictures of depression era presented technological progress with humor and pessimistic approach. These pictures, although portrays poverty and ruin but at some points presented the glimpses of beauty in common buildings and objects. Some critics blamed Evans that he gave more importance to objects than to people as objects are usually more prominent in his pictures, but Kozloff explained his technique as, “the rightness of this tone gradually sinks in on the viewer, who grasps that Evans aims to describe a broader spectacle, the diffusions of a culture in its material expression" (Kozloff, p.116).
Walker Evens himself, in his book photography, said about photographer,
“Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a JOYOUS sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts. This man is in effect a voyeur by nature; also a reporter, a tinkerer as well as a spy. What keep him going on are pure absorption, incurable childishness, and healthy defiance of Puritanism. The life of his guild is combined scramble and love's labor lost” (Evans).
Dorothea Lange was born in the year 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. She worked for Arnold Genthe and studied photography at Columbia University with Clarence White. She settled in San Francisco in 1919 and opened a photography studio there (Meltzer). During Great Depression era she emphasized on San Francisco’s dispossessed people. In the year 1935, she with Paul Taylor, an associate professor of economics at Berkley University, documented the difficulties of immigrants for California Emergency Relief Administration. They both married after that.
Impressed with her work for migrants, Roy Stryker offered her a job in FSA to document the impact of great depression. Most of Lange’s work was based outside of California.
Analysis of her Great Depression Photographs
There is no particular objectivity in her photographs. She emphasized on the subjects of the photographs, rather than any object or objectivity. Her photographs portray simplicity and realism. She believed in the consequences of seeing a photograph rather than the photograph itself. She herself wrote about her picture Migrant mother:
“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, her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty two. They said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and the 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" (Lange)
Sometimes, at first glance, Lange’s pictures depict lack of craftsmanship and technicality but after careful watching, these pictures revealed themselves. The actual spirit and feeling of these pictures excels the lack of craftsmanship. The pictures of Lange were not only the realistic presentation of bare facts but they have feeling, especially the feeling of fear of future and unknown.
Critics of her work said that she had the ability to make her invisible for her subjects and this quality is most prominent in almost all of her pictures. Her subjects looked unaffected by her presence and looked directly into the camera (Bascom).
Lange had used facial semiotics in her pictures. Her pictures used the faces of her subjects as mirrors, which depicted the inner character of the viewer rather than the subject itself. Roy Stryker had said about her photo, Migrant Mother, “You can see anything you want in her. She is immortal” (Sobieszek; p. 138). Lange photos usually emphasized on people rather than objects. She had shown poverty, ruins, and misery of great depression with the help of people’s expression. Although her pictures were marvelously composed but they sometimes lacked proper light sense and contrast.
Lange’s pictures have superb geometrical composition. Her photos text depicted the plight and the dignity of labor in the poverty of depression era. Her pictures not only presented United States culture, but had also shown how this culture affected the lives of poor immigrants. Her photos of depression era helped to create the awareness for the plight of immigrants and farmers. All her pictures directly hit the heart and soul of the viewer due to their simlicity and directness.
Another important quality of her photographs were Aesthetic realism. Her photo White Angel Breadline is a beautiful example of Aesthetic Realism. She had seen every person aesthetically and presented her anger for poverty, misery and hunger in the form of her photographs. Presentation of minute details in her pictures make the viewer feel the soul inside these pictures.
Her photographs revealed that technique is sometimes posed a barrier for the originality of art and its feelings. She did not present her art of photography as a slave of technique. For her, her subjects and feelings were more important.