Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Documenting Life: Dorothea Lange and Helen Levitt


One of art’s functions has always been to document the world. Humanity has always had a desire to capture and preserve the places that surround us. Through imagery we can learn about the past; how and where people lived and how they saw the world. With the invention of photography in the mid 1800’s came an explosion of documentation. Not since the humanism of the Renaissance had artists shown such an interest in documenting the world of individuals. And what better time for a quick and efficient way to document; the 19th and 20th centuries saw a rapidity of development so intense that photography was almost a necessity to preserve anything before it drastically changed. Documentary photography quickly grew into its own as an art form and many of the most influential photographers of the 20th century came from the documentary school. Two of them currently have work being exhibited in Utah art museums. Photographs from Dorothea Lange’s Three Mormon Towns are on display at the BYU Museum of Art, and the UMFA has a collection of works by Helen Levitt.

Dorothea Lange started her career as a photographer in 1918 after moving from New York, where she had been schooled in photography, to San Francisco. Within a year, she had established herself as a successful studio portrait photographer. In 1920, she married Maynard Dixon, famous painter of the American West. When the Great Depression hit America, Lange’s work moved from the studios to the streets. She documented the struggles of families living through the depression, and her best work was produced during this time, when she worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Her best-known work, the 1936 “Migrant Mother,” has become one of the most famous photographs in history and an enduring symbol of the Great Depression. She went on to document Japanese internment camps during World War II and later co-founded the photographic magazine Aperture.

The works on display at the BYU Museum of Art are of a much lighter subject matter than Lange’s better known projects. In Three Mormon Towns, a project shot for Life magazine, the desperation and anguish of her depression and war time photographs is replaced with contentment and the hopeful feeling of a changing world, yet she captures her subject with equal care and the images are breathtaking and serene. Lange attempts to show a complete picture of the life of the people living in the small towns. There are surprisingly few images done in the portrait style of “Migrant Mother.” Instead, Lange has given us a portrait of a community; she juxtaposes images of a congregation leaving church with signs of modernization such as the highway and road signs made necessary by the changing environment of the mid 20th century.

One image,“The Highway, Alone, Analysis of Concrete, the Reason for the Existence of St. George, Also – Trucking,” is a simple image of the highway through St. George. What’s interesting about this piece, and about the majority of those in the show, is that the image alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Titles can be a tricky thing when it comes to art; they can add to, detract from, or have no effect on the meaning of a piece. Lange’s titles add meaning to her work. They give context and reason to her photographs. Because of the title, a simple view of the highway is much more meaningful and important. The highway becomes a force, a character in the narrative of Lange’s work. Every image in the exhibit forms part of a greater story. There are portraits,|1|images in which people are secondary figures, and images devoid of signs of humanity to remind us that all of this is set in the beautiful landscape of southern Utah. The chance to see some lesser known work by one of the most influential artists of the 20th century is well worth a trek to Provo. The exhibit will be on display through April 30th.

While Dorothea Lange was beginning to make a name for herself, Helen Levitt was only 5 years old. Unlike Lange, who was schooled in photography, Levitt was a high school dropout who taught herself photography while working under a commercial photographer in Brooklyn. She was teaching some art classes for children in 1937 when she became intrigued by chalk drawings that children were making on the streets of New York; she bought a Leica camera and began photographing them. At the age of 25, some of her works were selected to appear in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s new photography section. She was involved in filmmaking for nearly 25 years, but in a biographical essay, Maria Hambourg wrote that Levitt “all but disinherited this part of her work.” Her true passion was street photography, mostly of her native New York.

This passion is blaringly obvious in the photographs currently on display at the UMFA. The images span Levitt’s career, beginning in the 1930’s and running through the 1990’s. With a few exceptions, all of the photographs are in New York. Levitt explored the streets with her camera, and her images focus on the ways in which people relate to the street.|2-6| Many of her early works focus on children, capturing them as they turn the street into their playground. Something that sets Levitt’s work apart from Lange’s is the element of time. Lange’s images are all dependent on a time context in order to convey meaning. In addition, her images all appear to be carefully composed and it’s obvious she worked slowly while photographing. On the other hand, Levitt’s photography is much more fleeting; it has a certain ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ aesthetic that has always separated street photography from traditional documentary photography. Time seems to be irrelevant in her work. Except for some subtleties indicative of modernity, such as credit card stickers in a storefront window, an image from the late 1930’s is hard to distinguish from one from the mid 90’s.

Whether in black and white or color, from the early 20th century or the late, Levitt’s photographs are all about the same thing; people. People are the constant that holds all of her work together. The narrative she creates is an ongoing one about the human condition. There is no message or conclusion to be found, Levitt’s work is an exploration of all the infinite moments that make up our lives. One can find boundless joy and comfort in viewing her photographs, for as we view her subjects, we view ourselves. Unlike Lange’s works, whose titles are a necessary component of their meaning, each of Levitt’s photographs is accompanied by a place name and a year. The titles are nothing more than a way of keeping a chronology. Each image is part of a greater meaning that is better grasped with each new photograph viewed. The Helen Levitt exhibit will be on display until June 12th.

Jared Christensen holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography from Westminster College (’12). He has since worked at Tanner Frames, and has been exploring the effects of presentation and framing in his and others’ work. He will soon be pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Curatorial Practice at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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