Sunday, May 13, 2012

Art Analysis: Dorothea Lange

“Unemployed lumber worker goes with his wife to the bean harvest. Note Social Security number tattooed on arm.” –Hard Times

May, 2012
            Dorothea Lange took this picture in 1939 in Oregon. She captured a well groomed poverty stricken couple that was on their way to the bean harvest. The man was unemployed (Hard Times) and the women had no records of being employed or not, guessing that they moved around together, she was probably unemployed as well. The man is tattooed with the social security number of a 27 year old Thomas Cave, relatively healthy (depending on how much of that pipe he smoked), and clean cut(Hard Times). They are living poorly in a make-shift room; open on one side, bare mattress inside, and dirt floor. This picture, like many of Lange’s others is that of the poor American immigrant. Although, this picture shows the juxtaposition of a well-to-do looking couple in a down-to-earth looking environment, unlike most of Lange’s pictures of scruffy and dirty workers, both men and women. This photo also shows a couple other similarities to Lange’s style. First it has the effect of hope in the eyes of a proud man, looking for work in a time of unemployment. And second, a woman struck with the burden of enduring. A lot of Lange’s photos show this idea of women enduring one aspect of life or another, it would be impossible to judge this kept woman’s ordeals simply from the picture but within inferring we unravel a story of persistence. It is important to note that this photo was taken before the first wave of feminism in the United States and thus some women had to face all the adversities of a growing patriarchal, class ridden society independently. That is the basis for which my interpretation of this photo will divulge.
            Within this photograph I see the influence of migration and class on a young couple, but what I don’t see is the internal struggle they had endured. This inference is part of what Lange wants us to focus on. Like first wave feminists used personal motives to induce political change, Lange uses her photos to spark the thoughts of people who had been morally stagnant towards the effects of the depression on the migrating lower class. I see this photograph as a form of resisting poverty with hard persistence. First I would like to examine the endurance shown by the couple’s expressions, and then I will go into their style of clothing. The expression of the woman in the photo drew my interest and thoughts towards her daily routine. I can only guess that her days consisted of internal frustration. That’s because I see her hand on her head, almost tired, and the lack of a smile makes me think that she is hoping for different goals than her male companion. She also has a significantly tanner arm than leg, showing that the sun has not only taken its toll from the man but from her as well. She continues to wear dresses in spite of their living situation. This alone holds her standards and appearance. This appearance that the couple presents would imply a class other than their own. This leads me to my last and most intriguing point about Lange’s photo.
            While being educated on the different waves of feminism, I learned about how women show different degrees of their body to imply different motives and meaning. I would like to draw a connection between this expression of the body, within first wave feminist art, and the appearance of class, within this photo. This connection starts by understanding the importance of choice. For instance, the woman and man in the photo are living outdoors, have made most of their furniture, and sleeping on a bare mattress, yet they choose to groom themselves with care. The man has a trim hairline, while the woman sports a dress, bracelet, and hairstyle as well. This is mirrored thirty years later by the feminists of the first wave choosing to defy structure and use the body in artwork to define what they stand for. Frueh describes this mindset and inspiration in her article “The Body through Women’s Eyes”. A couple paragraphs in, she opens with the following “In the 1970’s, feminist artists, wanting to reclaim the female body for women, asserted women’s ability to create their own aesthetic pleasures by representing women’s bodies and the women’s bodily expression.”(190) I find this motive very similar to that of the couple in 1939. Although they had not heard of any feminist movement back then, they still held their self-expression and independence despite what others may have expected of them. Feminist artists of the first wave and the couple in this picture both carry an important theme that I would like to end this entry with. Once again I am bound to the limitation of inference, but the theme I see in both cases is that of persistence. Feminist artists continued to change and adapt their styles, means of expression, and even themselves, but held their independent vigor against the oppression of patriarchal judgments. Similarly the couple holds strong to their fashion and choice of style despite the eyes of some higher class. Thanks to Lange and artists of the 70’s, these two forms of self-expression will hold strong throughout time as examples of determination and endurance.

Works Cited
Frueh, Joanna. “The Body Through Women’s Eyes” in The Power of Feminist Art, p.190-207. Print.
Photography of Dorothea Lange: An American Archive-Hard Times. December 6, 2009. Web.  <>

(Acknowledgement: I incorporated the description of the picture from the second source into my opening description.)

By: Grant Gebhardt
Group: Gabby, Grant, Kyu

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