Dorthea Lange and the Essense of Subject – Art Essay
Symbols, generalisations are the language of politics, so it is not surprising to read of Dorothea Lange approaching her subject not as a human being but as “an essence”. Her actions show a political philosophy which
espouses helping ‘the people’ as an idea over ‘the person’ as a physical reality, and the photo Migrant Mother could be seen as a good example of what Sontag calls the violence of the photo, the action that “turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” While Lange tries to avoid these ideas of violence or exploitation by talking of how “There was a sort of equality about it”, the resolute indifference she shows to the personal aspects of her subject indicate more an awareness of her own agenda of finding “the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.” (Sontag) rather than any give and take between the subject and herself. Of course it may be that thousands became better off because of the sympathy generated by that photo, even if the subject herself did not. However it is somewhat disquieting that Lange’s romantic outlook of the circumstances behind the taking of the photograph has not been tempered with hindsight, and she does not examine or acknowledge the problematic aspects of her actions or the resulting picture.