Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions

You know this photograph, of course. You saw it in your 10th-grade American History book illustrating the chapter about the Great Depression, or maybe you saw it hanging on a wall somewhere, or in some National Geographic collection of important photographs of the century.

NPR has a moving excerpt from a new book about photographer Dorothea Lange, Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field. Lange is of course responsible for 1936's "Migrant Mother," to the left, but her body of work beyond that iconic photo is equally heart-rending and extensive.

Read the excerpt; I found myself breathless as the history of Lange's work and personal life unfolded. I had no idea she'd been based here in San Francisco (right down on Montgomery Street!) as a portrait photographer to the wealthy before moving on to work for FDR's New Deal government as a "field observer" and photographer. Lange hung out with the artistic rockstars of the era, of course, including Ansel Adams and her estranged husband Maynard Dixon. And all of this as a mother to two young sons, as well.

Not to get all wonky on you, but I'm so struck by the confluence of postmodern and Buddhist themes in this little article. One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is of course the rejection of grand metanarratives and the reliance upon personal experience and individual narrative as harbingers of truth and sources of revelation. Lange's remarks here, about sitting quietly and watching and listening to people open up, and her photographs as sources of economic and social information for the government, seem to me a perfect reflection of this mindset (some fifty years before postmodernism became hip).

Lange said:
Often it's just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust; sitting down on the ground with people, letting the children look at your camera with their dirty, grimy, little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you let them, because you know that if you will behave in a generous manner, you're very apt to receive it.…I have asked for a drink of water and taken a long time to drink it, and I have told everything about myself long before I asked any question. "What are you doing here?" they'd say. "Why with your camera? What do you want to take pictures of us for? Why don't you go down and do this, that, and the other?" I've taken a long time, patiently, to explain, and as truthfully as I could.

I've been thinking a lot in the last year or so about listening, about active listening, about how important it is and how much we can learn and see just by being still and letting other people speak and opening up to what they say and letting that easily guide our own responses. And Lange's approach really speaks to that. This, to me, is equally Buddhist; the sitting there in that grimy moment, being present and still in that most meditative and open and clear-headed kind of way, not obstructed by rushing thoughts or presumptions, but just opening up to what presents itself to you, and then taking it in as you will (in Lange's case, capturing it via photo and handwritten caption), and letting that be the source of your art.

Don't know why but I kept tearing up reading this one. Again I'm reminded of the power of art (and photography, a la Leibowitz) to articulate the experience of being alive. At the same time, I keep thinking about the fact that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were using their art in the same era (and in San Francisco, too) to speak some of the same realities about labor, workers' rights, poverty, and solidarity.

Art is powerful. Art is useful. Art is relevant. We should not underestimate its potential.

Dorothea Lange: 'Daring to Look' (NPR)


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