11 August 2009

Depicting Hope ~ Dorothea Lange

J.R. Butler, President of the Southern Tenant
Farmer's Union, Memphis, Tennessee, 1938.
Photograph © Dorothea Lange.

"Lange, it seems to me, was brave in her record of human suffering. She didn't turn away. Look at the portrait of the president of the Southern Tenant farmer's Union. Look at that man's eyes. He knows he's not going to win." ~ Robert Adams
Adams makes that remark in the course of a conversation, just after he'd announced: "Here's a heresy for you: I think Dorothea Lange was greater than Walker Evans." It seems to me, having been reading Adams a bit lately, that this judgment reflects his broader view of how photographers need or ought to engage the world. In another essay he notes of Lange that "As an artist, her prime subjects were . . . the beauty of the world, and the courage it takes to survive in it." Her stance, in other words, differs significantly from the distanced, disengaged one that Evans typically adopts. Lange is perhaps best known for her images of depression era Americans confronting relentlessly dire economic crisis. But there is a consistent theme in her work that people did not suffer this adversity either in silence or isolation. So there are, in Lange's best work, depictions of labor organization and strife, as well as of the immediate face of authority.

For me the question that Adams raises is an interesting one. Is Lange's portrait of J.R. Butler one of suffering? Or is it instead a portrait of something perhaps more elusive - hope? Here I turn to Václav Havel who notes that:
"Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, . . . the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from 'elsewhere.'"
Havel, of course, suggests that hope in this sense is "a dimension of the soul" or "an orientation of the spirit." Nine years in Catholic school have left me pretty resolutely averse to any kind of talk about souls. You could say the Sisters of St. Joseph pretty much beat such nonsense out of me.* And this is not the place to address the ways in which Havel's view might be persuasive. It seems to me that Butler is a man facing adversity, more or less unblinkingly, because his activity "makes sense" in just the way Havel suggests. So, perhaps this is less the face of suffering than that of hope in a direct political sense?
* Ironically. of course, they thought that all the wacks, smacks, and worse would, somehow, some way, save my soul.

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