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Dorothea Lange: Ever Eloquent in Her Chronicles of American Life

November 10, 2000|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind," Dorothea Lange said--and did. She photographed hungrily, thirstily, finding nourishment in each framed moment. Lange's photographs of the 1930s have become icons of the era, and they are but a select few links in the long, sturdy chain of what she called her "visual life."

Rose Gallery's show of Lange's photographs from the 1930s through the year before her death in 1965 intersperses a few of those familiar, persistently breathtaking images among more humble examples from a career of continuous revelation. Born in 1895, Lange started out as a portraitist in New York. Aiming for China, she headed west in 1918 and made it as far as San Francisco, where she opened a portrait studio the following year. The portraitist's premium on character and gesture stayed with her, even as the Depression eroded her business and propelled her into the conscientious realm of documentary photography.

Lange shot the famous "White Angel Bread Line" in 1932, on the first day she photographed on the street--the first day, she later recalled, when she went into an area others warned her not to go. Set against a sea of backs, one man with stubbled chin and soiled hat turns away, to rest his arms against a railing. His hat shadows his eyes, but he becomes our surrogate, a personal point of identification and empathy in an otherwise straightforward document.

In the years that followed, Lange immersed herself in the nation's economic turmoil, recording its faces with intimacy and a deeply felt sense of the dignity of each individual. "Migrant Mother," which Lange made when she was working for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), reads as the female counterpart to the destitute man in the bread line photograph. Here is a young woman, aged by desperation, ringed by scruffy children, tormented by what she cannot provide for them. The proof sheet hanging next to the picture reveals Lange herself functioning as a zoom lens, shooting the family's lean-to, then stepping closer and closer until the woman, her children and the urgency of their situation fill the frame.

Lange is one of the 20th century's most eloquent chroniclers. This show (composed mainly of non-vintage prints, some unpublished) just skims the surface, touching on her powerful documentation of the Depression era, and her urban portraits, Irish subjects and family-based work from the 1950s. Whether shooting a political demonstration or the blurred exhilaration of her son as a new father, Lange favored the singular gesture, easily read and resonant, over complicated orchestrations of form. Articulate in words as well as pictures, Lange declared the camera to be "an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." It does, and so, magnificently, did she.

* Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-8440, through Nov. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Questions of Purpose: The intimate epic is not an oxymoron but a particular achievement of Jeanine Breaker's. Her ravishing pastel drawings at William Turner Gallery are cozily sized for close viewing--just 7 inches high and 26 wide--but they read as grandly scaled landscapes. Their insistent horizontality suggests a scope of time as broad and continuous as the land or sky.

Breaker's lushly drawn works are, themselves, small spectacles that pair the spectacular in nature with its wholly contrived counterpart in the realm of human endeavor. A fire breather exhales a plume of flame that jets upward like several other fiery geysers on the horizon. Two figures walk a high wire strung before a magnificent wave of ocean froth or fluid cloud. A cannon shoots two small figures through the sky and in their smoky, arching wake, a message forms like an apparition and reads like a snippet of poetry.

Breaker's approach to scale is telling: Like ants on the savanna, her tiny figures perform in vast environments powered by stupendous natural forces. This is humanity in its rightful place--small, but not helpless or impotent. The characters in these beautiful meta-narratives have definite power and self-possession. They have mastered complex feats and are engaged in extreme physical risk. Their dedication, concentration on their performance and their focused self-assurance feel vaguely heroic, yet an undercurrent of futility persists: They perform in utter isolation, and the natural grandeur of the earth overshadows their efforts.

Breaker's titles ("fire flaught," "board in smoke," "seven-sided animal") derive from obsolete and perhaps partially fictionalized dictionary definitions. They reinforce the sense that these images are metaphors for human conditions.

In the end, these gorgeous, troubling drawings prompt questions of purpose: Why do we do what we do? And how do we figure in the grand panorama?

* William Turner Gallery, 77 Market St., Venice, (310) 392-8399, through Dec. 2. Closed Sundays.

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