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.

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