I am puzzled by a kink in the otherwise fine fabric of Andrew Jones’s review of the excellent Dorothea Lange exhibition at The Barbican (July/August SR).
Andrew identifies the political preferences of the Roosevelt-era managers and editors of the photographic projects undertaken by Lange and others for the Farm Security Administration, which is usefully contrasted with a simultaneous show of rejected work at The Whitechapel Gallery. He then suggests that formal qualities evident in Lange’s own work are themselves politically flawed.
Despite acknowledging Lange’s knowledge of and support for industrial action in California in 1934, which she made some work about, Andrew maintains that, “the liberal humanistic visual language she developed was not one fitted to the representation of the collective agency the working class had demonstrated.”
Andrew goes on to conclude that “socialist documentary practice” means having to “go beyond the limits of the model Lange exemplified”.
What precisely is lacking in Lange’s “visual language”? Is it the framing and cropping of compositional elements, or the lighting as captured by certain aperture and exposure settings? Or is it merely the lack of representation of open class antagonism on a picket line or demonstration?
Is Andrew saying that there is a prescribable, generic formula for proper socialist imagery?
I hope not, because the most salient lesson of Stalinist artistic prescriptions demolished by Trotsky is surely that no particular formal, generic model can be prescribed. The devil lies in the dialectical detail of any text in its historical and presentational context. This exhibition, for example, shows Nazi usage of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” for their WW2 propaganda purposes.
Lange’s photographic texts as presented at The Barbican are both beautiful and moving, memorable precisely because of their formal beauty, and make a highly effective statement about poverty, alienation and exploitation in the context of the US in 2018.