Sunday, November 15, 2009


In July 1939, Dorothea Lange was sent to North Carolina to work with two sociologists on a study of agricultural conditions and the plight of sharecroppers and tenant farmers. She spent most of her time with one or the other of the researchers meeting with families in their homes and fields, but on the weekends she observed local folks shopping, going to church, and enjoying a bit of time off.

On a roadside in Person County, for example, she encountered two boys playfully wrestling each other, one white and one African-American:*

A few days later and a few miles south she found herself near Cedar Grove, North Carolina, on Independence Day. There, she observed some horseplay at a local filling station, one that also served as country store and natural gathering spot for adults and kids with some time on their hands. The two shots directly below show some young members of a local amateur baseball team goofing off for the camera. In this case the inter-racial overtones are different: the African-American seated at left is not taking part in the fun, and, from his demeanor, one suspects he feels he wouldn't be welcome.

In her book on Lange, Linda Gordon describes the set of photos to which these two belong: "Lange had made five photographs of the scene, showing about a dozen figures, several in baseball uniforms, preparing to play with a local league; mugging for the camera, they began picking up and swinging one guy by his arms and legs. In the original context, these images signaled the economic backwardness, inactivity, and racism of the rural South. At the far end of the porch, distinctly removed from the others, was a black man who did not participate in the roughhousing, but sat tight with a tense smile." Gordon goes on to explain how a photo from this group was used in a wartime poster to give a patriotic message ("This is America...Where a fellow can start on the home team and wind up in the big league...").

I've reproduced the other photos below, one of them with detailed images. My reading of them is different from Linda Gordon's. They do show the separateness of the lone African-American, but in them I don't think Lange aimed to highlight the racism of the whites she shows. During this period her photos are surprisingly free of racist overtones. We know, how could we not, how much great were the hardships of African-Americans in the US South of the 1930s, how much they suffered as a result of the Jim Crow white supremacy policies of that era. But Lange's photos do not stress these conditions. Where they show African-Americans and whites together, you might see separation, as with the lone man on the left in the filling station photos, but not oppression.**

I also don't think Lange intended to convey "inactivity" in a pejorative sense; she made it plain that photos taken in off hours were distinct from ones taken during the long working days and, during those long working days, she showed men like these hard at work. Moreover, while she did of course depict "economic backwardness," in doing so she did not convey that people who lacked money and possessions were any less well off than those who were prosperous, well educated, and blessed with an abundance of material goods. To the contrary, she and the sociologists recorded a surprising level of contentment among the destitute people they photographed and interviewed.

Here are the other photos in the set, the ones that don't show the African-American:

{LC caption: Fourth of July, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rural filling stations become community centers and general loafing grounds. The men in the baseball suits are on a local team which will play a game nearby. They are called the Cedargrove Team. Field notes says that local teams generally played ball on Saturday afternoons; there were separate teams for Negroes and Whites.}

Image details:

Remaining shots in the set:

{LC caption: Rural filling station becomes community center and general grounds for loafing. The men in baseball suits are on a local team which will play a game nearby. The team is called the Cedargrove Team. Fourth of July, Near Chapel Hill, North Carolina}


Some sources:

Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field, by Anne Whiston Spirn (University Of Chicago Press, 2008)

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009)



*All photos come from the Farm Security Administration Collection in LC's Prints and Photos Division. Click image to view full size.

** On another day and in another place, she had taken a photo that could be (and indeed was) read as conveying some of the arrogance of power-wielding white men in the Jim Crow South of this era of white supremacy:

{LC caption: Plantation owner. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1936 June}
About this image Linda Gordon writes:
In one extraordinary image of a plantation owner and his croppers at a country store, Lange succeeded in replicating the power structure visually, both on the picture plane and in the three dimensions it represents. A plantation owner stands next to the porch of a Mississippi general store, dominating the image from just right of center, with one leg set aggressively on the bumper of his car, looking off to his right. Behind him are five black men, probably his share croppers, sitting and standing on the porch, in postures almost exaggeratedly unassuming, withdrawing, small, even frail by contrast with the white man. As the white man makes himself, and is made by Lange, as large as possible, so the black men are shrinking themselves. The photograph lets us see the relations of power and deference on a southern plantation. Some viewers had no trouble understanding this image as subversive. One letter to a newspaper complained that "...indicative of the agency's [FSA's] vivid pink Miss Lange's cunningly posed portrait of 'The Plantation Owner...'
-- Source: Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon
Gordon goes on to say that Lange's boss, Stryker, and Roosevelt administration took the position that the Depression affected blacks and whites alike and were careful as a rule not to show blacks as especially disadvantaged.

Image details:

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