The myth of the United States has never lacked the hyperbole and temptation inspired by grandiose landscapes and the untapped potential of these expansive natural resources. Photography’s role in shaping American identity can be explored from multiple perspectives, especially as the medium became increasingly accessible and popular during the early 20th century. Two new books present both the enthusiastic embrace of this distinctly American idealism and the devastating results of how such fervor left too many people with nothing.
For the past 35 years, television executive Josh Sapan has been collecting panoramic photographs, which now comprise The Big Picture: America in Panorama. The book hypnotically pulls you into its pages as you squint at countless faces that anonymously personalize the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sapan writes of these images, “Even in its random assembly, the collection captured many social and political threads that were defining the country, from the passion for cars evident at the 1915 convention of the Good Roads Association to the press for racial equality as expressed at the 1932 NAACP conference and the growing middle class’s increasing opportunities for leisure activity, on display at early Miss America pageants.” For Sapan, no matter the reason for orchestrating these outsize portraits, they all champion “the value of the shared experience.”
For the most part, it is difficult to discern facial qualities in these photographs. This is not a matter of printing; the duotone reproductions are excellent. But the nature of these photographs, both in terms of subjects and technology, loses faces under hats or blurs them into a sea of heads. These are not natural perspectives; they are perspectives facilitated by the cameras. Where faces are more visible, there is a dearth of smiles—these are serious, resolute endeavors, for the most part. Even the most notable smiles—the bathing beauties, the “Midget Swing Revue”—are strained and self-conscious. What are we really being shown?
Twenty-four notable contributors share their thoughts on certain of these images. Yogi Berra marvels at a 1921 Old-Timers’ Day photograph that includes Cy Young. Using a 1903 portrait, Martha Stewart summarizes the history of Lasell Female Seminary: “In the space of 80-odd years, the women of what became Lasell College had gone from learning how to manage a household to learning how to manage one.” The contributors provide very literal descriptions of these images, but as Luc Sante touches on in the book’s introduction, there is more at play in this niche of photography than wide-angle frames: “Despite its European origins, the panoramic photograph has always seemed like an especially American form of expression, uniquely adapted to the scale of the wide-open country … and its corresponding optimism and ambition.”
In 1914, Fisher Body was the world’s largest producer of car bodies, and in 1919 General Motors bought a controlling share of the company, which at its height employed 100,000 people across 40 plants. In a circa 1926 photograph from Cleveland, the office and factory staff of Fisher Body pile into the frame, the mass seemingly twice as long as the factory in the background. This is a boastful photograph, one meant to flex a company’s success. As Sante points out, these photographs became most popular during the time of postcards, both of which crammed “as much information as possible into the frame, a significant consideration for a time that saw both the dramatic expansion of vernacular photography and the proliferation of American business that expanded villages into towns and towns into cities.”
As a stark contrast, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, pulls individuals out of the masses, focusing on those whose lives did not fit into the American narrative portrayed in The Big Picture. Migrant workers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers are the primary subjects of Lange’s photographs, which convey the immeasurable weariness and despair of knowing you’ve arrived at a dead end. For years, and in many cases for generations, these laborers worked land in order to live off it, but as banks and large landowners consolidated their interests in favor of the bottom line, essentially eradicating family farming as a means of survival, the workers were the ones literally left by the side of the road with nowhere else to go.
This monograph is the companion book to a PBS American Masters episode that will air this year. With text written by Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s goddaughter, and over 100 photographs spanning Lange’s career, including photographs of interned Japanese Americans and work from foreign travel, this book exemplifies one of her credos: “I believe in living with the camera, and not using the camera.”
Lange became familiar with photography working in a Manhattan studio that specialized in portraits for wealthy customers. In 1918 she and a friend headed west, planning on going around the world, but a pickpocket dashed that dream and the two ended up in San Francisco. Lange found work in the studio of Maynard Dixon, her first husband; the second floor studio on Montgomery Street was one of the hubs of the city’s bohemian scene. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Lange found it harder and harder to work for the wealthy, as her interests were leaning toward the downtrodden who were becoming harder and harder to ignore. The first time she shot on the street was when she followed an unemployed man to a breadline after watching him from the studio window: stubble-chinned, leaning against a wooden fence with his back turned to the crowd, his dirty hat hiding his eyes, a dented tin cup between his arms, his hands clasped as if for warmth, a prayer unanswered. Of this image, Lange explained, “I can only say I knew I was looking at something. You know there are moments such as these when time stands still and all you do is hold your breath and hope it will wait for you. … You know then that you are not taking anything away from anyone: their privacy, their dignity, their wholeness.”
Lange’s interest in the growing number of involuntary outcasts did not attract attention, however, until Paul Taylor, her second husband, saw some of her images from a 1934 May Day rally in San Francisco. Together and separately, the two traveled for the rest of Lange’s life, seeking to document the purity of anguish. Whether working for the Farm Security Administration or various magazines, Lange sought to document truth in the name of informing the general public of immeasurable wrongs.
In 1936, Lange captured her most iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother.” It captures a mother and two children—all of them dirty, wearing tattered clothes; all we see of the scared shy children are the backs of their heads nestling into their mother as she stares ahead with a worried face. Like all of Lange’s strongest work, this portrait does not so much show us how someone looks, but documents a condition—penury, isolation—and how the condition cruelly reshapes individuals, changing them forever. As we learn from The Big Picture, in that same year the Virginia division of the Travelers Protective Association of the United States met in their prosperous-looking suits, sprawling out on the grass; in 1935, the Inter City Beauties gathered in Atlantic City to parade around in bathing suits.
With these two books in mind, it is impossible not to consider the two parallel Americas documented on these pages. As Lange believed, “You can’t do people in trouble without photographing people who are not in trouble, too. You have to have those contrasts.” Of course, America remains a nation of contrasts but thanks to the evolution of camera culture, The Big Picture and Dorothea Lange visually manifest these contrasts being folded into the American narrative, making for amazing and haunting books.