Funeral Cortege by Dorothea Lange

Discussion in 'Discussing a ****** Photograph' started by Colin Graham, Jan 26, 2007.

  1. Colin Graham

    Colin Graham Member

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    Every time I look through my Lange book I stop at this shot. The irony is that while she's my favorite photographer, I dislike portrait photography only a little less than candid photography. (I know, it's journalism) That her work subverts my distrust of the medium isn't altogether fantastic. But it does make me wonder about the safe avenues I plod down in my own work. This shot isnt about tonality or sharpness or luminosity or all the things I strive for in my own work, yet it devastates anything I'll ever create. This picture amazes me and yet I know I could never take this picture. The woman is sagging in her own cameo frame, barely propped up by her own clenched hand, possibly the worst day she will ever know. How could I hope to meet this woman's stare? No matter how sympathetic the eye, Lange's work always seems latently confrontational, like simple yet unavoidable physical law.
     
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  2. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    "End of an era in a small valley town".

    Lange was fearless, and probably (like most great photographers) ruthless when it came to capturing an image. If you can find the movie "Dorothea Lange, A Visual Life" by Meg Cunningham, I highly recommend it.

    But the title plays a role in our (sorry, my) reaction to the picture. Without the title, would we know that this is a funeral, and why is it the end of an era? But even without this knowledge I would find it a compelling picture....
     
  3. Colin Graham

    Colin Graham Member

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    Fearlessness...ruthlessness, not things that normally leap to mind when describing artist, but essential traits nonetheless and it's always good to see the whole motive.

    Thanks for completing the title. I'm not sure why I didn't include the whole title. I'm a bit puzzled by it, and maybe frustrated too because it makes me want to know more about a story that I understand only a slice of.

    And thanks for the movie recommendation, I'll keep an eye out for it.
     
  4. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    I did a bit of a Google search on the title.

    All I can find out is that is was taken ca. 1938 in CA.

    As I look again at the hearse - it may be horse-drawn. Notice that the doors are hinged on the right like a carriage.

    But why the "valley" reference? Central Valley perhaps and therefore a reference to the Okies? But would a dust bowl refugee have been able to afford a hearse?

    Or was this a "native Californian" mourning not just a personal loss but the loss of a simpler, pre-Depression, pre-Okie way of life?
     
  5. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    Some more information

    You can find some more information about this photo in the following
    interview (look for "Lange" once you get there).

    http://www.photowings.org/pages/index.php?pgA73

    Basically, John Szarkowski found out that the words "end of an era" was more of a personal observation by Lange for the widow in the photo (her husband is dead and it's the end of her life as she knew it) , and not a social observation. Then Szarkowski makes the comment about how malleable photos are, and how the makers frequently try to nail down the possible interpretations with titles, text etc.

    -Bill
     
  6. catem

    catem Member

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    I think 'end of an era' is a good title. Whatever the woman is feeling (and how can we assume exactly what she's feeling) it will be the end of a phase.

    I find her look very powerful - asking us why we are looking at her, but also asking (telling) us to look at ourselves, how we will be going through what she is going through, we will be facing death or dealing with it, just around the corner...
     
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  7. jp80874

    jp80874 Subscriber

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    In the field of antique cars, doors that are hinged to open this way are called suicide doors. One wonders if this adds to the symbolism.

    John Powers
     
  8. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    I find this interesting only that the word "Era" usually refers to a period of time of commonality that was (it's usually used in a past tense) experienced by a society - we don't usually use the word to refer to an individual's time experience.

    So, if Lange was using it to define this woman's "era of married life" I think the title is, shall we say, somewhat misleading.

    Then again, maybe that's my NY Times crossword puzzle pickiness coming out. But in the late 1930's I don't think people had personal "eras". :confused: :D
     
  9. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    George,

    I agree it was a misleading use of language, but these misleading uses increase over time and modify the usage. I knew we were in deep trouble when someone was quoted in the Boston Globe saying "I don't want to be signaled out." Singled out, maybe? I don't know anymore....

    And speaking of crossword puzzles, my late father and (my currently living mother) kept crossword puzzles in the bathroom. While we were polite to each other in person, one could expect a vigorous erasing of one's solutions at times. We never discussed the crossword puzzles --- except once, my feeble father leaned over to me and said: "Women of habit...nuns...good catch, son."

    But here we are discussing language, when we should be discussing the image....
     
  10. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    Score one for your late Father!

    As to the image - I just noticed how the windows reflect cloud scudded skies behind Lange while the Sun is still casting shadows off to the right.

    Storm clouds perhaps - are they coming? Or passing?
     
  11. bruce terry

    bruce terry Member

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    Charmingly grotesque, but the awkwardly-chopped-off aft portion of the hearse down the lower right vertical throws me way off.

    I wonder what Lange was thinking - or not thinking - to leave the image like this when an extremely slight crop would have removed the useless busy-ness of the bottom-half vertical edge, brought out the cab and it's sadly terminal passenger much more powerfully - and lost absolutely nothing of any value.

    But I wasn't there, then, nor am I a great photographer. But I am a curious one: Why did Lange do this? Was she one of those ardent no-croppers? Any thoughts?

    Bruce
     
  12. Colin Graham

    Colin Graham Member

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    That was me Bruce. I had to scan the image in from a large book and cropped off abit much there to straighten the image. Sorry about that. Very clumsy of me.
     
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  13. Colin Graham

    Colin Graham Member

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    Here's a better one.
     
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  14. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    [​IMG]





    Hi Ralph
     
  15. bruce terry

    bruce terry Member

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    Amazing how much better people look when they roll down the window.
     
  16. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    But then again, you don't get the "mourning cloud" reflections off the windows either....
     
  17. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    Thank you for presenting it.
    I first saw this image in the early 50s, and as a small-town boy knew instantly what situation was presented. I doubt that anyone who grew up much later, or in a city, would recognize and respond to it. It was not just the widow, but the whole thing -- cropping down would completely ruin the entire story, told in a single photograph. What a genius Lange was!
    The period, of course, was referred to even then as the Depression Era.
    I think it's time for me to go back and re-read Milton Meltzer's excellent biography of Lange.
     
  18. catem

    catem Member

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    Or the direct gaze back at you.

    btw I think 'end of an era' can be used in a personal way, we do it all the time in our family -e.g. moving house etc. Maybe it's a cultural thing. The title doesn't jar with me. I think it's an interesting question - and not just being picky over language - as some photographers choose the titles of their photos with care, and it can add a lot to the meaning. Obviously Lange felt it made sense on a personal level aswell.
     
  19. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    Apparently the entire title is: "Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town. California, 1938."
    Lange's titles can be a little flaky, because many of them were invented for her book, "American Exodsis."
     
  20. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    Yes, I can see where there are personal uses of the word "era". I guess part of it with Lange is that I associate her work so much with the Great Depression etc. that it seemed the title should portend something larger than this woman's personal history.
     
  21. catem

    catem Member

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    Don't you think it does, though?

    In social terms 'Era's' don't tend to have a cut-off point, but blend into each other - in the UK the Victorian Era (don't suppose you would call it that?) spread well into the twentieth century, you could say for the whole pre-war period (definitely until the 1st World War and in many ways until the 2nd)...In Europe 1938 would be without question 'the end of an era'.....after the war, the beginning of the modern world in so many ways. Was it so different in the US?

    I'm not meaning to nit-pick at all, just find the whole question of language/history/ imagery fascinating. And this one does seem to me from another age, and to suggest some kind of turning point - particularly in view of the age of the woman, and the fact that she would have been in her prime in a different world...
     
  22. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    Hi Cate,

    No worries, I understand what you're saying. The problem I would have with the immediate analysis is that I believe the picture was taken in 1938. So, unless she was prescient when the picture was shot, Lange would not have known that the Depression was about to end (almost as many people were out of work in '38 as were in '32) largely as a result of the outbreak of WWII beginning for you folk in 1939. And in fact, the US didn't enter that war until three years (1941) after this photo was shot.

    Eariler I tried to guess that perhaps Lange was referring to the changes that were occuring in the Central Valley of California (and that state generally) as thousands of migrants from the Plains states were arriving to escape the ravages of the Dust Bowl (i.e. massive drought in central US)? These migrants, nicknamed "Okies" since many came from Oklahoma, were not "welcomed" in CA - which, as was the case everywhere, struggling with the Depression.

    Because most of these migrants had been farmers - they particularly gravitated to the Central Valley - which was, and remains, a major farming area. Most of these migrants were herded into "camps" and there was very serious tension between them and the "native residents" of the area.

    See for example John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath - made into a movie with Henry Fonda around 1940(?) for a poignant story of this era in CA.

    Anyway, this has been an overly long way of saying that if Lange's use of the word "era" is not referring strictly to this woman's life, then, given the time and place, it may be referring to what many would have considered the end of an era of a more bucolic and placid Central Valley than what they were encountering at the time.

    Anyway, just my two pence. :wink:

    Oh, BTW, the term Victorian Era is used on this side of the pond. Sometimes to describe a cultural era (particularly among the "affected classes" in the East who emulated the British upper class lifestyle) but also, more often, to refer to a certain style of architecture from that time (e.g. the classic "Addams Family house"). :smile:

    EDIT: See caption of the lead photo of this article from today's NY Times for an example of the use of the term "Victorian":

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/01/garden/01moving.html?_r=1&8dpc&oref=slogin
     
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  23. catem

    catem Member

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    Yes, I read 'The Grapes of Wrath' age 16, & most of Steinbeck's work - made a big impression on me! The film too.

    I think the point is, all the threads are there - including a wider sense of the world changing, which must have been there at that time....

    I suppose I'm trying to say - eras in time aren't tied down to specific events, either. For example last year an elderly relative of mine died aged nearly 94. We all said at the time it was the 'end of an era' and it truly felt it, when you think that she was born before the First World War. Life is just not the same now. And yet someone in the future could say - what was so special about 2006 for it to be the end of an 'era'? The end of any life, reasonably long, makes you look back not only in personal terms but in a wider, social way.

    Perhaps trying to pin it down too much - or analysing it too much - is a mistake.

    The meaning is there, sure enough, on various levels. What a great photographer she was.
     
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  24. Colin Graham

    Colin Graham Member

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    Interesting. Generally, if I cant reconcile a title I don't like with a photograph that I do, I simple ignore the title. Because I regard Lange so highly, I think I simply failed somewhere and keep wondering about it. But in the end I think Bill is right, some of the titles are a bit flaky and overwrought because of the American Exodus project. Many of her later photographs are very plainly... labeled, instead of titled, so to speak.