Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Portal into the Past

These days, millions of people think they know what Americans experienced during the Great Depression three–quarters of a century ago.

It is understandable that they should feel that way. This recession has been persistent, stubborn, cruel, painful — choose the adjective you think is most appropriate. Housing foreclosures have been rampant. Job losses have been across the board. They haven't been confined to specific industries. Few have been spared the misery that has been wrought.

But the vast majority of the people who are living today were not living in the days of the Depression, and their only sources for comparison are books, journals, films, perhaps the recollections of older family members (most of whom likely are not living anymore). Even most of the living people who can remember that time in American history were mere children. They didn't have to look for work when the unemployment rate was 25%.

Dorothea Lange did live in those days. Is the name unfamiliar to you? Perhaps the name is unfamiliar, but the work she did during her life shouldn't be.

For it was through her photographer's eyes — and camera lens — that those living in the 21st century can get an idea what life was like for so many Americans in the 1930s.

For example, her 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson — titled simply "Migrant Mother" — captured for many the sense of helplessness and shame that many people experienced during the Depression.

"I did not ask her name or her history," Lange said. "She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."

Lange wasn't a trained reporter, and Thompson later acknowledged that she got some of the details of her story wrong.

"There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell," she said. "The only ones we had were on the Hudson, and we drove off in them. I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have."

If Thompson harbored any resentment, it was that she was never compensated for her image.

Well, Lange wasn't a businesswoman, nor was she writer. She was a photographer, and her photography told stories the way words couldn't.

What is more, her pictures didn't just tell the stories of people who were victims of the economy. She also took pictures that told the story of discrimination in America.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 Japanese people living in the United States (more than three–fifths of whom were American citizens) were forced to relocate in internment camps. Shortly before that happened, Lange snapped the picture at the right that shows Japanese children pledging allegiance to the American flag.

She was a pioneer, a woman excelling in what had been largely a man's world. But that wasn't her only handicap. Like so many others of her generation — including the man who was president during the Depression — Lange suffered from polio. She survived, but the disease left her with a permanent limp of which she, apparently, always was conscious.

"It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," she said. "I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."

I don't know how pronounced that limp was. I knew a man who had polio when he was young and walked with a noticeable limp until his death (in his 80s) a few years ago. I never saw Lange walk so I don't know if, perhaps, it was as severe as that.

I've known people, for example, who, for one reason or another, suffered from speech impediments. Some were quite severe, while others were so modest that no one except the people who were afflicted really seemed to be aware of it.

If Lange's handicap was modest, perhaps it served its purpose by helping her to be more empathetic with the suffering she must have seen all around her in the mid–1930s — and then, of course, after Pearl Harbor.

Lange died of cancer at the age of 70 in 1965. Today would have been her 115th birthday.

No comments: