The basis of Democracy

What Lange saw in her subjects came partly from her own consciousness. Her portraits of sharecroppers and interned Japanese Americans express her emotions as well as theirs. Yet there is a durable distinction between gazes turned inward and those turned outward. Critic Linda Nochlin pointed out that artistic realism arose as a democratic form, reserved for representing the common people, deriving from the anti-aristocratic movements or the nineteenth century. Lange’s realistic approach was itself a democratic form, representing others, no matter how plebeian, as autonomous subjects, most certainly not as emanations of herself. She did this through portraiture. Her documentary photography was portrait photography. What made it different was its subjects, and thereby its politics. She looked at the poor as she had looked at the rich, never stereotyping, never pretending “to any easy understanding of her subjects,” in the words of Getty museum curator Judith Keller. “Every Lange portrait subject is complex, and to some degree, inscrutable…. She never provides any superficial suggestion that we understand that person immediately.” That final, impermeable layer of unknowability is the basis of mutual respect and, in turn, the basis of democracy.


Linda Gordon,
Dorothea Lange, A life beyond limits

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~ por salamandrine em Dezembro 5, 2009.

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