Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Duccio, Madonna and Child.
Click to enlarge.

Dorothea Lange's "On the road with her family one month from South Dakota. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, Calif. September 1939" is culturally encoded for viewing in an American system. In the Whitney, for instance, the Coca-Cola bottle that holds the baby's milk would signify only desperation, but in the Louvre it might just as plausibly signify American materialism or American vulgarity. In a European museum in 1939, too, the idea that a family could own a car yet be poor would require a large wall caption, explaining. And of course migrant labor wasn't of much aesthetic concern to Europe during the month when World War II began.

So Lange's image is culturally on its own, like the mother and children it depicts. In western art, we'll approach almost any image of a mother and her baby in the expectation of a view of the Christ, but Lange's madonna doesn't respond to our inquiry in either of the two traditional European ways. She looks neither out of her picture at us nor down within her picture at her child, but only forward through her car's windshield. In her glasses we can see, reflected, what look like utility poles along a highway. They lead our gaze out of the picture and on. With us, they are bound to the woman through the passage of a time measurable on the heroically human scale of miles per hour.

Library of Congress, from http://shorpy.com.

To read the picture in that way is almost automatically to think of it as a work of American art -- specifically, of American art of the Popular Front era, when W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were at work on an operetta about Paul Bunyan, Heroic Worker Turned Exploiter. But those lenses complicate everything. Under the Khmer Rouge, a need for glasses was a capital offense. Lange's woman from South Dakota may be a member of the bourgeoisie who has lost everything except a vestige of her former class taint, or she may be a kulak wealthy enough to own spectacles. In the cultural nationalist terms of the 1930s, either of those possibilities constitutes an aesthetic embarrassment. If the woman from South Dakota were being painted by John Steuart Curry or written about by Stephen Vincent Benét or composed about by Virgil Thomson, we can be sure that the artist would buff up her muscles and lose the glasses. But if the artist is a photographer, the embarrassments will have to stay in, and the second drafts of the artist's vision will have to be turned over to us spectators.


One of the twentieth century's iconic images of a woman in glasses lives on in our nightmares as an aftereffect of Eisenstein's Potemkin. Early in the film, a ship's doctor removes his pince-nez, folds the two lenses together to make a magnifying glass, and stares through it at a side of meat crawling with maggots which he says aren't there. Obligingly, the camera peers over the doctor's shoulder and transmits its view through the lens to us who sit in our theater. Yes, says the image onscreen, and Yes, we agree, passing judgment: those are maggots. The doctor's lens works for the camera, but it doesn't work for the doctor. No matter how much we may shout at the screen, he won't see. His officer's uniform is only a costume, his glasses are only costume jewelry, and the regime for which he obligingly refuses to see is only a movie. But then, in its Odessa Steps sequence, the movie Potemkin shatters a lens. I am not a movie now, it tells us. Look at me lensless. My eyes are undefended.

By contrast, the lenses in Edward Weston's portrait of José Clemente Orozco reflect light defiantly back from Orozco's face. Fully equipped, Orozco, an artist, will now deal with light on his own terms. The space beside him is empty. He needs no child; he needs no woman. When he goes pioneering, it will be into unlensed light, light seen on its own unmodified terms. And when light is in the hands of the shaper Edward Weston, it hammers the transparent and leaves it bulletproof.


As to Dorothea Lange's woman from South Dakota, we were probably used to thinking of her in photographic terms even before we were aware of her existence. In 1939, in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck told her story in the general terms of a myth, and the next year John Ford retold the story in a moving picture which is still showing in the American dream. But thanks to Europe in 1939, the historical substrate of that chapter of the dream has changed. Steinbeck's Okies and Arkies soon migrated from California's orchards to California's defense plants, and once they were there they ceased to be peasantry. Then, as their postures and their faces and their bodies underwent metamorphosis, some of the most beautiful among them began returning the idea of American photography to a European model.

Alfred Palmer, "Bombardier nose section of a B-17F
Navy bomber at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach,
Calif. October 1942. The B-17F 'Flying Fortress' is a later
model of the B-17." Library of Congress, from http://shorpy.com.

The woman in this image, for instance, is post-Lange and post-Eisenstein. Even as she plays a part in a war, she is clean and made up, and wearing a ring and a golden watch. One of her fingers is bandaged, but her nails are manicured. Her eyes are modestly downcast, and her head is curved downward in the immemorial gesture of maternal love. Quietly living through her great adventure, she is safe. She is studio art. All around her, enclosing, nestling, is a great lens.

Like Duccio's madonna, this image entered history with a purpose. At considerable expense for 1942, it was made on 4-by-5 inch Kodachrome by one of many photographers working in a coordinated effort for the United States Office of War Information. Within that context, it would be anachronistic to say anything explicit about the function of the death-dealing thing through whose curved opening a woman emerges into black drapery. We are to think of that solid transparency only as a shell which encloses goodness. The madonna of this shell is a madonna not for eternity but only for the duration. Three years earlier, she may have been one of Dorothea Lange's migrants, but now she is a lady. After the war ends, who can say what she'll be? But for now, unfaded in Kodachrome, she lives on.

Perhaps more disturbing, so does the formal beauty of the photographer's composition, and so does the formal beauty of that streamlined shell, protecting the woman even as it delivers her into the lighting that bathes her form. Refracted by a methacrylate matrix, time bends and the duration reaches from 1942 forward to us and backward to Duccio. Would you like to drink to that? There may be some milk left in the Coke bottle just outside the image.