Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Lesbian Love Letters of Pioneering Victorian Photographer and Photojournalist Fannie Benjamin Johnston

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“If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving.”

Pioneering photographer Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston received her first camera as a gift from Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and used it to usher in a new era of photojournalism. Beginning with portraits of family and friends, she was soon recognized as a formidable talent and came to photograph some of the era’s greatest celebrities, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Roosevelt, becoming a true self-made woman and creative entrepreneur by the standards of the age. Around the time she turned thirty, Fannie met Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the then-wife of the St. Louis photographer Arthur Hewitt — a marriage the arrangements of which remain unclear, but appear to have been largely for practical purposes. Mattie worked in her husband’s darkroom and was herself passionate about photography, so when Johnston first encountered Hewitt’s work, she was impressed and complimented it effusively. This mutuality of creative admiration soon blossomed into romantic love — a proposition particularly radical, and even dangerous, for two nineteenth-century women.

And yet what a romance it was — the soul-stirring letters from Hewitt to Johnston, found in the altogether fascinating biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952 (public library), join the ranks of other exquisite epistolary exchanges of lady-love, including those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wynn Matthison, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Mein Liebling –

… Just reread your letter, am I all the nice things you say about me, I wonder? Ever since you told me that I was indeed worthwhile, I have felt like another woman, and now if I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.

When I married that nice little man, I thought of course I should get all the love my heart had yearned for, but somehow he has always seemed too busy to stop long enough for such nonsense, as he calls it.

Seven years ago, baby came and stayed just long enough to leave me with a hungry mother’s heart. Since then I have never met with anyone that could fill this great big [void] … until I met you in Buffalo and well, you know how I have tried to show you in every possible way that I loved you, loved you dearly.

… I am not foolish enough to expect you to love me in this way only it was so sweet and meant so very much that I could not but tell it over and over.

Your life is so full and your friends so many — that you have cared for me should make me satisfied.

I am not going to weary you with a love letter every time I write, so don’t worry dear…

… If I have been the help you say I am to you, then I am more than glad. I have been so afraid from the first that you would think me a foolish sentimental woman and I was so happy when you told me the other day that you understood — If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving. . . .

I wonder why I expect you to understand me better than most people — is it because I love you so?

In another letter, Hewitt wrote:

…Ah I love you, love you better than ever you know. . . . Yes my dear we will turn over a new leaf and stand together in time of weakness or need of help and we must not ever again turn away head or take hand away but when I need you or you need me — must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight, I will clear away all misunderstandings or doubts and the sun will shine again. . . .

And in another:

I slept in your place and on your pillow — it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey — not quite, for we had you and the sweet taste too — I am foolish about you I admit. . . .

Portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In 1909, Mattie divorced Arthur and moved to New York to be with Frances, living and working together, and eventually making their creative collaboration official in 1913 when they opened a joint studio specializing in architectural photography. The only surviving record of their romance are those early letters from the years when they lived apart and wrote to each other, more of which can be found in The Woman behind the Lens.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Story Behind the Iconic “Migrant Mother” Photograph and How Dorothea Lange Almost Didn’t Take It

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How a serendipitous hand-lettered sign changed the history of photojournalism.

At the same time that pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott was busy capturing the urban fabric and trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Mead was laying the groundwork for modern anthropology, Dorothea Lange mastered the intersection of the two in her influential Depression-era photojournalism and documentary photography. In Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (public library), Lange’s goddaughter Elizabeth Partridge, an accomplished and prolific author in her own right, presents a first-of-its-kind career-spanning monograph of the legendary photographer’s work, placing her most famous and enduring photographs in a biographical context that adds new dimension to these iconic images.

Among the biographical sketches is also the story of Lange’s best-known, infinitely expressive, most iconic photograph of all — Migrant Mother, depicting an agricultural worker named Florence Owens Thompson with her children — which came to capture the harrowing realities of the Great Depression not merely as an economic phenomenon but as a human tragedy.

Migrant Mother, 1936

In 1935, Lange and her second husband, the Berkeley economics professor and self-taught photographer Paul Taylor, were transferred to the Resettlement Administration (RA), one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs designed to help the country recover from the depression. Lange began working as a Field Investigator and Photographer under Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division.

Resettlement Administration Report, 'Rural Rehabilitation Camps for Migrants' by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange. Lange had absorbed Taylor's working habits, particularly the practice of listening attentively to the migrant workers and taking handwritten notes on what they said. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

In early February of 1936, while living in a small two-bedroom house in California with Taylor and her two step-children, Lange received an assignment to photograph California’s rural and urban slums and farmworkers. She was supposed to spend a month on the road, but severe weather along the coast delayed her departure. When she finally set out for Los Angeles, the first destination on her route, she wrote in a letter to Stryker:

Tried to work in the pea camps in heavy rain from the back of the station wagon. I doubt that I got anything. . . . Made other mistakes too. . . . I make the most mistakes on subject matter that I get excited about and enthusiastic. In other words, the worse the work, the richer the material was.

Accompanying this photograph was Lange's handwritten caption: 'Old Negro -- the kind the planters like. He hoes, picks cotton, and is full of good humor.' Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi, 1937 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

It was in the pea camps that she captured her most iconic image less than two weeks later — an image that, due to its unshakable grip of empathy, would transcend the status of mere visual icon and effect critical cultural awareness on both a social and political level. Partridge writes:

Two weeks of sleet and steady rain had caused a rust blight, destroying the pea crop. There was no work, no money to buy food. Dorothea approached “the hungry and desperate mother,” huddled under a torn canvas tent with her children. The family had been living on frozen vegetables they’d gleaned from the fields and birds the children killed. Working quickly, Dorothea made just a few exposures, climbed back in her car, and drove home.

Dorothea knew the starving pea pickers couldn’t wait for someone in Washington, DC to act. They needed help immediately. She developed the negatives of the stranded family, and rushed several photographs to the San Francisco News. Two of her images accompanied an article on March 10th as the federal government rushed twenty thousand pounds of food to the migrants.

Another shot of Florence Owens Thompson. Lange's caption from her notebook: 'Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven children without food. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is a native Californian.' Nipomo, California, 1936 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

The most remarkable part of the story, however, is that this was an image Lange almost didn’t take: At the end of that cold and wretched winter, she had been on the road for almost a month, with only the insufficient protection of her camera lens between her and the desperate, soul-stirringly dejected living and working conditions of California’s migratory farm workers. Downhearted and weary, both physically and psychologically, she decided she had seen and captured enough, packed up her clunky camera equipment, and headed north on Highway 101, bickering with herself in her notebook: “Haven’t you plenty of negatives already on the subject? Isn’t this just one more of the same?” But then something happened — a fleeting glance, one of those pivotal chance encounters that shape lives. Partridge transports us to that fateful March day:

The cold, wet conditions of Northern California gave way to sweltering heat in Los Angeles, a “vile town,” Dorothea wrote. By the beginning of March she was headed home, exhausted, her camera bags packed on the front seat beside her.

Hours later, the hand-lettered “Pea pickers camp” sign flashed by her. Did she have it in her to try one more time?

She did.

The long, hard rains that had delayed Dorothea at the outset of her journey had deluged the Nipomo pea pickers. And even as Dorothea drove north and homeward, the camp was still floundering in water and mud. Not long before Dorothea arrived, Florence Thompson and four of her six children, along with some of the other stranded migrants, had moved to a higher, sandy location nearby. Thompson left word at the first camp for her partner, Jim Hill, on where to find them. Earlier in the day he’d set off walking with Thompson’s two sons to find parts for their broken-down car.

The sandy camp in front of a windbreak of eucalyptus trees is where Dorothea pulled in and found Florence Thompson and her children. They were waiting for Hill and the boys to show up, for the ground to dry, for crops to ripen for harvesting. They were waiting for their luck to change.

In minutes, Dorothea took the photograph that would become the definitive icon of the Great Depression, intuitively conveying the migrants’ perilous predicament in the frame of her camera.

Dorothea Lange’s studio and darkroom, Berkeley, California (Photograph: Rondal Partridge, c. 1957 / Helen Dixon Collection)

Complement Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, illuminating in its entirety, with this excellent short film on the power of photojournalism and Susan Sontag on the violence of photography.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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31 OCTOBER, 2013

This Is Mars: Mesmerizing Ultra-High-Resolution NASA Photos at the Intersection of Art and Science

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Unprecedented look at the ever-enchanting Red Planet, at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever.

“Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there WILL be by the end of this century,” Arthur C. Clarke predicted in 1971 while contemplating humanity’s quest to conquer the Red Planet. “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you,” Carl Sagan said a quarter century later in his bittersweet message to future Mars explorers shortly before his death. Sagan, of course, has always been with us — especially as we fulfill, at least partially, Clarke’s prophecy: On March 10, 2006, we put a proxy of human life on, or at least very near, Mars — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its powerful HiRISE telescope, arrived in the Red Planet’s orbit and began mapping its surface in unprecedented detail.

This Is Mars (public library) — a lavish visual atlas by French photographer, graphic designer and editor Xavier Barral, featuring 150 glorious ultra-high-resolution black-and-white images culled from the 30,000 photographs taken by NASA’s MRO, alongside essays by HiRISE telescope principal researcher Alfred S. McEwen, astrophysicist Francis Rocard, and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold — offers an unparalleled glimpse of those mesmerizing visions of otherworldly landscapes beamed back by the MRO in all their romantic granularity, making the ever-enthralling Red Planet feel at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever. At the intersection of art and science, these mesmerizing images belong somewhere between Berenice Abbot’s vintage science photography, the most enchanting aerial photography of Earth, and the NASA Art Project.

In a sentiment of beautiful symmetry to Eudora Welty’s meditation on place and fiction, Barral considers how these images simultaneously anchor us to a physical place and invite us into an ever-unfolding fantasy:

At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates. These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.

For a profound appreciation of how far we’ve come, complement This Is Mars with these beautiful black-and-white photos of vintage NASA training facilities and Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury’s now-legendary 1971 conversation on Mars and the human mind.

Images courtesy of Aperture

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