Muhlenberg College Spring 2019


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.