Photography – A Beginner’s Guide – Documentary Photography [Dorothea Lange] – An article by Goff James

Welcome followers and visitors to my blog and another update in my photography Beginner’s Guide to Photography.

This week I will be talking about Documentary Photography and looking at an image by Dorothea Lange.

One can learn so much about photography by looking at; and, talking about other photograpgers’ work.

Documentary Photography may be defined as;

  • using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject.

  • a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage.

The image that I have selected is a photograph by Dorothea Lange, (1895-1965, American) entitled:

Migrant Mother of 6, Age 32, Now Living in California,1936

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 11.00.07
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother of 6, Age 32, Now Living in California, 1936

The image, held within a tight framing, and made up of a close up portrait set against a dilapidated cloth backdrop, of a woman with her lips pressed in a firm line, furrowed brow creasing her careworn, weather-beaten face with three children.

It has a shallow depth of field with the apparent main light source directly above and behind the camera.

Two children have their heads resting on the woman’s shoulders, their faces averted from the camera.

The third child, a baby, whose face is visible at the right edge of the frame, behind a wooden pole.

The woman is placed centre frame surrounded by her three siblings reflecting a classically triangular composition with two small heads on either side and the baby held close to her breast where her shirt is unbuttoned.

The image reflects the dire poverty in which they find themselves –  ragged but resolute. The image captures the poverty, grime and despair of that era.

It seems to be a simple photograph of a woman and her children, yet it tells the story and the struggle of a generation

Amy Lane

The subject’s body and head are tilted slightly forward to allow each of the three children the comfort they need.

The image bears the iconic emotional and symbolic character of a classical monument or a Renaissance Madonna with all its attaching religious connotations.

The main area of focus is the seated woman with her lips pressed in a firm line and her furrowed brow creasing her careworn, weather-beaten face.

The woman sits within her personal living space and demonstrates an intense personal human emotion that invites the viewer to both respond to and empathize with the subject.

The subject’s gaze neither meets the camera’s lens nor the viewer’s eyes but is cast provocatively outwards beyond such limitations.

The image is deeply emotional and personal, but with an air of distance and detachment.

The remainder of the composition communicates both a reflexive defensiveness, as the bodies of the two standing children are turned inward and away from the viewer that exposes their inescapable vulnerability.

The tension in the woman’s face is accentuated by her supporting right arm and hand holding and pressing into the side of her face.

This gesture reaching up to touch her chin and the total disposition of her body communicate related tensions.

The image portrays both an individual’s physical and mental strength counterpointed with palpable concern as well as political ramifications concerning self esteem, productive worth and the futility of any action in impoverished circumstances.

The image documents a period of history and tells the story of a time, place, group of people and their particular circumstance.

We live in troubled times … it is impossible not to … make … connections to things happening today. It shows how a photographer can assume the role of activist to try to instigate social change.”

Drew Johnson

I trust that you find some of these ideas useful within the context of your own photography. Don’t be afraid to experiment and allow different ideas to develop as you go along.

Remember what I referred to in previous articles about taking photos and creating photograms; the same applies to considering your own photos, other photographers’ work as well as applying different artist’s ideas too.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Experiment! Experiment! Experiment!

Remember there are no right or wrong answers or ways of doing it.

Your photographs are your world.

You can do what you like. 

Don’t worry about the theory and trying to remember everything about how to take or consider how to look at or stage a photograph.

Don’t worry about what you might think is right or wrong in talking about or taking photographs.

 Make mistakes. Laugh. Have funJust enjoy the process.

Happy Photography. 

Thank you for your visit.

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