Muhlenberg College Spring 2019

Coles

Sympathetic Lightning

Sympathetic lightning is the tendency of lightning to be loosely coordinated across long distances. Discharges can appear in clusters when viewed from space.

“Lightning.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Dorothea Lange’s location as a documentary photographer arises from her own life experiences and social roles. It might be appropriate to say that her location exists on the intersection of these roles, ad that she approached her work with an intricate combination of multiple perspectives. As a career-driven woman in the 1930s, afflicted with polio in early childhood, she had to detach from herself and her emotions, and wear an “invisible cloak” to successfully navigate the world, according to the Grab a Hunk of Lightning documentary film (Taylor, 2014).

Due to her gender and disability, Lange took on the perspective of an outcast early on in her career. This perspective likely drew Lange to investigate “primarily working people through her lens of respect,” “the struggles of those on the economic bottom” and to “[show] her subjects as worthier than their conditions,” according to Linda Gordon’s writing on Lange in Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. In dealing with these subjects and becoming a “photographer of democracy,” Lange’s location can also be described as progressive, concerned with social justice, empathy, and the humanity of others (Gordon, 2009).

Lange can also be located as someone who is concerned with taking up space in a physical environment. Lange appears to take a great interest in physical space and the impact that it can have on a subject in her portraiture work. For example, in her early shots of “Migrant Mother,” Lange photographs a wide shot of the Florence Thompson’s family’s tent in Nipomo, CA to show their situation (fig.1). Then in a procession of several shots, Lange moves closer in to capture Thompson’s expression (fig.2), and “make the particular universal” (Coles, 1999). That is, Lange manipulates physical space in a photo to make a specific historical moment relatable to all viewers. Perhaps this concern with space stems from her disability. The polio she had in her childhood left her lame in one leg, so it’s possible that her attitude toward this bled into her photography work.

Mailbox in Dust Bowl. Photo by Dorothea Lange.
Mailbox in Dust Bowl. Coldwater District, north of Dalhart, Texas. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Lange’s concern with physical space also ties into her location as a progressive environmentalist. Note how her Dust Bowl photography, such as “Mailbox in Dust Bowl,” pictured to the right, makes use of negative space to depict a desolate, lonely landscape damaged by the harsh climate. Her environmentalist work dovetails neatly with her social justice work. Both locations require that the photographer represent their subjects – people (in the case of social justice) and the planet (in the case of environmentalism) – with a sense of dignity, respect, and empathy, which Lange does with aplomb.

De Viris Illustribus

English meaning: On Illustrious Men

Some of them left a name behind them, so that their praises are still sung.

While others have left no memory, and disappeared as though they had not existed. They are now as though they had never been, and so too, their children after them.

Wisdom of Sirach, Chapter 44
A black-and-white photo of a small country church in Alabama.
Photo by Walker Evans. Published in 1936. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017762358/)

“To be more abstract about both Agee and Orwell as social observers and writers […], certain polarities or tensions ought to be mentioned: the demands of reality as against those of art; the demands of objectivity as against those of subjectivity […] a narrative, rendered in personal or vernacular or even confessional language as against one replete with a technical or academic language.”

(Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.)

I chose this quote specifically because it elaborates upon the “twofold struggle” of documentary work that Coles describes earlier in Chapter 1 of Doing Documentary Work (specifically on p20, as reference). This twofold struggle refers to the tension between an investigator’s desire to “ascertain what is” and how to present “what is” in order to ascribe meaning to it and how to fit that into the work’s larger social context. That is, every documentarian must find a balance between objective facts and subjective, emotional judgment. Importantly, the quote above explores the various dimensions of the documentarian’s struggle in approaching their work, such as reality versus artistic expression, objectivity versus subjectivity, and moral engagement versus analytical distance.

Coles also clearly places James Agee in conversation with George Orwell here, as both writers had to navigate these rhetorical dichotomies in their own work, much to the dissatisfaction of their editors. Both Agee and Orwell were capable of shifting their writing styles from emotionally charged to clinically distant in tone to best fit their situations, to make sense of the locations that they investigated, and to deliver incisive criticisms of the relatively privileged settings that they were raised within. By playing with their rhetoric and framing, they negotiated the twofold struggle of documentary. This negotiation is critical to doing successful documentary work that will be read and analyzed for years to come.

This photograph by Walker Evans, published in 1936, depicts a country church in Alabama. I thought this selection connected Evans’s work, Agee’s investigations, and the title of their collaboration: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Surely, the contrast between this austere, simple photo (a snapshot of the truth of Alabama, or “what was”) and the impassioned, Biblical rhetoric of Agee’s title embodies the twofold struggle of documentary work: that ever-present struggle between objectivity and subjectivity.

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