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Florence Thompson photographed by Dorothea Lange, California, 1936 (Fotosearch Getty Images)

The racial aesthetics of suffering

Essay | 11 minute read
Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange were both commissioned to document the hardships of American life during the Great Depression. Their images differed in only one respect: Lange’s subjects were overwhelmingly white and revealed a national hierarchy of suffering.

The cover photograph for the latest edition of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man is well chosen. In a deserted street of an American city, the cast-iron lid of a manhole cover is half opened and the head of a startled-looking black man emerges, peering out. He represents Ellison’s unnamed protagonist, ‘just another Negro’, and all black people whose lives are invisible to the white majority; and whose visibility might actually put them in jeopardy. Better to remain underground. That photo – taken by Gordon Parks in 1952, commissioned for a feature called ‘A Man Becomes Invisible’ to illuminate Ellison’s novel – still resonates today.

At your work station, on hearing the vacuum cleaner approach, do you greet the unspeaking woman in her overalls as she works the nozzle under your chair and desk, or do you instinctively and silently adjust your chair and raise your feet without lifting your gaze from the computer screen?

Later, as you near the dishevelled-looking man crouched on a mat with a handwritten plea for help on a bit of cardboard and a cap on the ground dotted with coins, do you consciously fix on his eyes, and resist the urge to adjust your path, or do you, without interrupting your stride, step around him?

Such scenarios come to mind in looking at Parks’ work and also in attending ‘The Politics of Seeing’, a wide-ranging exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s compelling and compassionate photos that was held recently at the Barbican Centre in London. The destitute and the invisible were Lange’s subjects, and in the 1930s and 40s, she set about challenging the American public’s indifference to them; she was determined to make them visible.

The decade before, Lange had established herself as an innovative studio pictorialist of the Bohemian set and the leisured class in California; her tender and intimate soft-focus portraits were in great demand. But after the stock market crash of 1929, when the Great Depression began to bite, Dorothea Lange underwent something of a transformation. She left the comforts of her studio to begin to record the great army of unemployed kicking their heels on street corners throughout the country. Lange later recalled that she had acted on instinct but struggled at first: ‘The discrepancy between what I was working on [in the studio] … and what was going on up the street was more than I could assimilate.’

Her early work in this burgeoning field of documentary photography, as exemplified by the hungry and forlorn subjects in her photograph of an impoverished huddle of men, ‘White Angel Breadline’, coincided with an ambitious photographic project by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government-sponsored initiative charged with promoting the ideals underpinning Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal work policies. In particular, the FSA recruited a small number of photographers to traverse the country, especially the South. The result, more than 100,000 photos, created a tapestry of American lives, and showed America to itself.

Lange’s powerful and poignant portraits of the Depression era came out of this commission, as did the work of Walker Evans and a dozen or so campaigning photographers who’d later be joined by the only African American of the group, Gordon Parks.

Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange (Getty)

In many ways, the works of Parks and Lange were twinned. Their two most famous portraits – Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and Parks’ ‘American Gothic’ – were informed by the compassion each brought to their work on stints with the FSA.

In one important area, though, they differed: Lange’s subjects were white; her FSA employers advised that she should not focus on black subjects. Strategically, the sight of near starving, poor, white unemployed people would be far more shocking and impactful, inducing greater sympathy than the images of their black counterparts. After all, white people assumed it was normal to see black people at the bottom rung of society; their plight was pre-determined – whether out of work or performing menial jobs like the charlady of ‘American Gothic’. Nonetheless, both portraits depict strong women dealt poor hands in the lottery of life, marked from birth with the stain of poverty.

The ‘Migrant Mother’ we now know as Florence Owens Thompson, but at the time she was not named. In a stark black-and-white photo, Florence sits – out of sight, half-opened suitcases spill their contents beside her – in a pea picker’s labour camp in California. It’s 1936: the crop has failed, and the nomadic migrants are desperate. Some shelter is provided by the awnings of a tent (the rest of the tent has been exchanged for food). In the close up of a series of portraits, Florence cradles a baby; two other young children snuggle up to her, pointedly turning their backs to the camera. Worry lines Florence’s face, decades-older-looking than her chronological years (she was thirty-two-years-old with seven children). Deep in thought, a hand hesitantly touches her chin; she stares, not distractedly, just stares, into the distance.

‘Migrant Mother’ (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The family has been reduced recently to selling the tyres of their car to buy food. She’s not going anywhere. Lange has captured her captivating languor: the haunted look of a mother who can no longer provide for her children, knowing all of the credit lines have been exhausted.

Over the years in newspapers and books, Florence’s stoicism and dignity have often been accented. John Steinbeck’s fiction in The Grapes of Wrath was galvanised by images such as the ‘Migrant Mother’. Steinbeck saw her as representative of the ‘resourceful and intelligent Americans’ who’d been made ‘gypsies by force of circumstances’.

A range of voices and opinions coalesced around a patriotic idea, branding Florence as the face of American pluck: a pioneer, weathering hardship and staring down adversity. On top of which was the nobility of her suffering and sacrifice; commentators routinely made the comparison with ‘Madonna and Child’, locating the portrait in the tradition of Western artistic practice. But the aesthetics and the classical composition of this exemplary photo cannot offset the fact that this is a portrait of defeat.

Arguably, ‘Migrant Mother’ would not have been elevated from emblem to icon had its subject been black. Lange’s contribution to the FSA scheme was vast. But what the federal project also captured was the hierarchy of suffering in the USA. There was a premium placed on whiteness – at least when it came to white audiences.

So much so that in such a racially stratified country, black people, who for centuries had been stigmatised and demonised, were disinclined to exhibit sensitivity to the suffering of their white compatriots – to have sympathy, as it were, for the devil. In On Being Negro in America, Jay Saunders Redding recalled the relief, if not cold delight, of coming across drunken white vagrants, seeing their plight was worse than his own.

If Lange’s photos failed to impact on black audiences (notwithstanding that they were never her target audience), she was at least one of the few white photographers to show through her work that black lives were also worthy of consideration.

Lange’s photos of black people, though, do not seem as sure-footed – as if there has been a failure of perception. The subjects seem distant and wary of her, glancing out at her from the corner of their eye – the child hesitating to wash her feet in private; the young woman at a segregated lunch counter with a fork paused before eating – too suppliant and polite to tell the peculiar white woman with the camera to leave them alone. It’s as if some racial barrier, despite Lange’s best intentions, still remains between them.

‘Migrant Worker’ by Dorothea Lange (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Parks was better able and more inclined to capture the souls of black folk. Parks’ early life – working in flophouses, playing the piano in brothels, riding freight trains – had unwittingly served as an apprenticeship for the work he’d eventually undertake; he hadn’t yet left the streets, as it were, from which they came.

Parks does not deny the sitters’ agency; he cedes authority to them. His creative generosity and sympathetic understanding is evident in the defiant stance of Ella Watson, the charlady at the centre of ‘American Gothic’ – a photographic reworking of the popular 1930s painting. Grant Wood’s original portrait of a grim-faced couple in their Sunday best – an unadorned woman and buttoned-up farmer stood to attention with a pitchfork in front of the Gothic window of a wooden house – was an idealised version of Midwestern Puritanism: earthy, earnest and virtuous.

In Parks’ version, the charlady at the end of a day’s cleaning in an America institution stands in front of a huge American flag pinned to a wall; instead of the pitchfork, she holds a bristly upturned broom in one hand and a mop in the other. The photo came about early on in Parks’ career with the FSA, when he was at a loss about how to begin. Parks recounts how he struck up a conversation with Watson as she came off her shift. After an hour in which she’d given him a whistle-stop tour of her ‘lifetime of drudgery and despair’, Parks positioned her in front of the flag, gave her the props and said, ‘Now think of what you just told me and look into the camera.’

Watson returned his instruction ‘with interest’: in ‘American Gothic’ she is unguarded but there’s no self-pity in her gaze; rather she exudes a kind of cold fury that many of her white compatriots would have been surprised by. And perhaps this best reflects the value and potency of the work of both Lange and Parks: they introduced a new way of seeing. If white viewers were surprised by Parks’ depiction of the barely contained rage of women previously cast as docile, then black viewers were equally shocked by Lange’s images of white poverty, of  – in Derek Walcott’s phrase – ‘white hands doing nigger work’.

‘Government Charwoman’, Washington DC, 1942, by Gordon Parks (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Documentary photography began with pioneers such as Lange and Parks; and the tension between photographers and subjects whose depiction earned them fame has been there from the beginning and has never abated.

In subsequent years ‘Migrant Mother’ made Lange enormously famous; the ten minutes that she took to capture fewer than a dozen images of Florence eclipsed the thousands of other negatives she exposed in the course of a forty-year-long career. Recalling the unusual brevity of their meeting, Lange asserted that nonetheless Florence Owens Thompson ‘seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.’

But decades later, Florence’s reflections on Lange were far more critical. In an interview given in 1978 she said she had regretted that Lange’s image had been given such exposure. She was outraged that she had never benefited financially from it; that her Cherokee heritage had been overlooked; and that Lange had reneged on a promise not to publish the photograph.

‘Family on Their Porch’ by Gordon Parks (Photo by Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

‘News is what happens when journalists are present,’ I was told when I joined the BBC twenty-five years ago. But digital technology has disrupted that formula. Increasingly news is what happens when smartphones with cameras are present. After the latest tragic event, news outlets such as the BBC will solicit content from those who were there with their mobile phones switched on. At some level this is a positive development: the subjects for the news report might also provide the content. We are more and more the authors of our stories.

In his 1931 essay ‘A Short History of Photography’, Walter Benjamin repeated a maxim which was as true then as it is today: ‘The illiterate of the future will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph.’ The tragedy of the enforced displacement of the Rohingya people has most ably been captured by refugees themselves. Citizen journalists and photographers, sending photos, videos and audio clips out of the country using smartphones, have illuminated that which the authorities in Myanmar would prefer to remain in the dark.

Psychologists often talk about selective perception where you suddenly have a heightened awareness of something to which you have previously given little thought. But the inverse is also true. The first time I saw a beggar in London, I was so shocked I emptied my pockets of all the change; there’s a much higher threshold to loosening my purse strings now.

But artists such as Lange have raised the stakes on indifference. Together with Parks, she built a bridge towards empathy that once you set foot on is difficult to go back. ‘What I want. What I am. What you force me to be is what you are,’ wrote Parks. It’s a sentiment that echoes the final passage of Ellison’s Invisible Man: ‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’

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