Lange & Adams: A Friendship of Differences

Recalling a less partisan time, William Meyers writes in Thursday’s WSJ on the friendship of Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams.

When both were working at the Manzanar, CA Japanese internment center during World War II, Lange’s work focused on the people occupying the camp, while Adams photographed his famous image: ” Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, From Manzanar, California.”

Lange was quoted in 1961 speaking about Ansel in this incident, referring to the fact that this was a disgraceful act in US domestic foreign policy, and that the victims of this policy should be represented (btw Lange’s own work at Manzanar was seen as so sympathetic to the Japanese that the images were suppressed by the War Relocation Authority that hired her to produce the work):

“It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about those things.”

The article expounds on Ansel’s view of himself as primarily a fine-artist, and his feeling that Lange should consider herself such too.  Lange said, “I’ve denied the role of the artist. It embarrassed me, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. And as far as the argument about whether photography is or is not an art. I’ve thought it was a useless and stupid argument. ”

This article brings up several points that ring true to me. It is my understanding that Adams never intended to be some great proponent of the environmentalist movement, but rather his work was appropriated by the Sierra Club in the 70’s to help spread it’s message of environmentalism.  I’m sure he was happy to take up the mantle, but what concerned Adams was the fine-art form of the image first, rather than any issue oriented motivation.

Perhaps I am too much of a populist, but when people refer to me as a fine-art photographer because my work is shown in galleries, it embarrasses me.  I always say, just call me a photographer. I don’t care if they think I am a wedding photographer, dog photographer or whatever.  If they get to know my work they’ll figure it out.

I love language, but sometimes semantics are so silly.  At the author reading of Lange’s biography at the National Portrait Gallery some audience member took the biographer to task because she dared to call Lange a photojournalist when Lange had posed her famous picture, “Migrant Mother.”  I doubt Lange would have cared if you called her a PJ or portraitist, she was without a doubt a documentary photographer.  And since the National Press Photographers Assoc. themself and almost every other photojournalistic organization I can think of has a contest category called Portrait, to waste a minute of ones life arguing this distinction to me is as unprofitable as trying to decide if photography is art or not.

I think this idiocracy of semantics is what Lange was referring to when she says that discussion of photography as an art form is a useless and stupid argument.  I agree.  Just today I heard on NPR that a city attempting to eradicate graffiti inadvertently painted over a piece of street art by an artist named Banksy, whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Obviously determining what is art is an oft-difficult task.  Thankfully, there is no litmus test that definitively defines it, or we would be missing out on a lot of work that speaks to us.  I say art is whatever speaks to you, the mediator of it. Now go out and make some.

A Triple Crown!

Since coming back from Fotofest life has been a bit of whirlwind.  My show, “American Vernacular” opened (and since closed) at Irvine Contemporary in DC, and received good notices.  On the plane coming home from Houston I found out that Consumed won an Honorable Mention in Center’s Project Competition.  Then, when I landed, I found out that my work in progress, Cholita, made PDN’s Photo Annual, and received the Chosen nod from American Photography.  I didn’t push my luck and enter Communication Arts,(writing ALL those checks gets to be so dull, you know).

Playa Agua Dulce, Lima, Peru © Susana Raab from the series, Cholita

The week before Fotofest I closed on a studio in my very own apt. building, AND I got a part-time job as a photographer at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, beating out over 400 applicants. I think that it will be a very exciting opportunity to work with a museum with quite a unique mission, to focus on communities, not the least of which will be the Anacostia community, that part of DC bifurcated from the rest of the city by the river. I cannot help but think of Langston Hughes, and hope that I am deserving of all this good fortune and that my soul will grow deep.

Reeling from all this wonderfulness, I am upping the ante on my karmic contributions to the world because goodness must be shared with all. This is a good time to ask me a favor, fyi.

I am also hoping that this will take the pressure off the commercial work a bit (though I always appreciate the interesting assignment), so I can focus on new projects. Not the least of which is my foundling little premie of a project, The District, which seeks perhaps to ambitiously, in retrospect,  to deconstruct DC, and which is generously sponsored by a very patient and wonderful Kodak films!

I am still floundering finding my way through this work, and I think that a sign has been given to me, and I may focus on the Anacostia community, this East of the River area, which boasts the highest unemployment rate in the District, but had/s a real soul to it, and is in itself a microcosm of America, for several reasons which I will illuminate at a later date and with photographs.

Thank you PDN, American Photography, Kodak films (makers of the oh so lovely Portra NC, how I adore you!), Center, the Smithsonian Institution, Irvine Contemporary, and Mitch Story (my real estate agent)! I have actually never had huge repositories of high self-worth (functioning for the most part out of terror, to paraphrase Mary Ellen Mark), but damnit, you just might make a millennial out of me!

PS Regular non-promotional programming resumes next week.

Easter Thoughts

When we think about the Crucifixion, we miss the point if we don’t think about sin.  – Flannery O’Connor


does anyone else prefer this mixture of words, audio, and stills in alec soth’s ny times opinion piece?  I think it is sheer brilliance and esp. adore it against the cacophony of motion and audio that is a lot of multimedia.  I think I can finally commit now to being for minimalism.  You know us pro-helvetica types.  Anyway this is exactly the type of stuff I want to do.  No 80000 frames in stop motion. Simple storytelling in creative ways.  Is this so wrong?

Thanks, Rachel!