On Friday night, prompted by my friend Lisa Stone, I watched a 2-hour PBS documentary on the photographer Dorothea Lange. I didn't know much about Lange prior to watching it; I was, of course, familiar with her famous portrait, "Migrant Mother," but little else other than that. She's known as an influential American documentary photographer, famous for her Depression-era work for the US Farm Security Administration. According to Wikipedia, her photographs "humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography."
What's interesting is that as I watched the PBS show, it became quite clear that Lange herself didn't like to refer to herself as a documentary photographer; in fact, she seemed quite vocal about distinguishing herself from that genre. At first, I found this hard to understand, since her archive of images clearly has a documentary feel. But then, when describing her approach to photography, she said the following:
"I want to extract the universality, not the circumstance."
Her words stopped me cold. She was passionate about photographing what she found beautiful (as I, of course, am), but I love that her goal for her art was to capture the resonance, over and above merely recording the circumstances surrounding the moment. The pursuit of connection was the key to her work.
That said, she was also known for using her art, her talents, and her ceaseless search for beauty as a form of activism. Through capturing these images of resonance, she fought tirelessly throughout her career for human rights. (In fact, her images of the World War II Japanese-American internment were so provocative, they were impounded by the US government.) She wholeheartedly believed the camera is an instrument of democracy.
Art and activism. Art-ctivism.
And now, going forward, I feel like I have a new way to think about the purpose of my work.
(If "Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightening" is showing in your neck of the woods, I'd strongly recommend watching it. It's a great film.)