Leibovitz on Lange

Thursday, January 22, 2009

As I wrote recently, Annie Leibovitz's new book "At Work" is an engrossing and insightful read. In addition to the stories about her own work, it's always interesting to hear one great photographer talk about another and I was particularly taken with the backstory Leibovitz recounts to Lange's iconic "Migrant Mother" of 1936 - a story I did not know.

Looking for a j-peg to illustrate the post with, I found this one which struck me as as a particularly sharp and well-rendered scan. While I've seen literally dozens of original prints of the image, I'm not sure I've seen anything quite as succinct.

Anyway, here is the passage about the picture from "At Work":

After spending a month on the road in southern California she (Lange) was finally heading home. It was raining and she was exhausted and she had a long drive ahead of her. She had been working up to fourteen hours a day for weeks and was bringing back hundreds of pictures of destitute farm workers. Somewhere south of San Luis Obispo she saw out of the corner of her eye a sign that said “Pea-Pickers Camp.” She tried to put it out of her mind. She had plenty of pictures of migrant farmers already. She was worried about her equipment, and thought about what might happen to her camera in the rain. She drove for about twenty miles past the sign and made a U-turn. She went back to the sign and turned down a muddy road. A woman was sitting with her children on the edge of a huge camp of makeshift tents. There were maybe three thousand migrant workers living there. Lange took out her Graflex and shot six frames, one of them of the woman staring distractedly off to the side while two of her children buried their faces in her shoulders.

The image of the woman and her children became the most important photograph of Dorothea Lange’s life and the iconic picture of the Depression.

When I’m asked about my work, I try to explain that there is no mystery involved. It is work. But things happen all the time that are unexpected, uncontrolled, unexplainable, even magical. The work prepares you for that moment.


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