The dust jacket is an invitation to reverie: a boy, a piece of white cloth draped over his eyes and head, is sleeping shirtless, bathed in sunlight. This is the pleasure of being alive; a break from the world; a moment of necessary retreat into oneself, away from others who are lost to the oblivion of the dream.
This image is part of an exceptional corpus assembled by the artist Sam Contis, who spent months scouring the Oakland Museum archives in 2017. She limited her research to photographs that Dorothea Lange took in California—images that have never, or only rarely, been shown to the public and which she brought together in an enigmatic ensemble.
A public bench
The people in the photographs often keep their eyes closed or are even sleep, sometimes in broad daylight. On the door of one house, Dorothea Lange spotted a sign that read, “Day Sleeper.” This would become the title of a book that collects moments of respite everyone must enjoy at times, like this woman cradled in the arms of Morpheus in a comfortable bed, or this man taking a nap on a public bench wearing a suit and a hat.
To surprise a sleeper by the release of the shutter may seem like a violent act. These pages, however, emanate immense tenderness, as if Dorothea Lange had managed to peek into a world opposite of ours, the underside we normally can’t see, and recorded the extraordinary silence of sleeping bodies.
In this book even the subjects who are not asleep seem to be at rest, in repose, withdrawn. For example, the woman seen from behind standing in the middle of a field, a cotton sack slung over her shoulder, who seems to have just emerged from a long night. Or the woman in a garden, under a canopy of robust spring foliage, giving a haircut to a man who, we imagine, must be her companion. Or again this passerby in a newsboy’s cap, the fingers of his left hand gently touching his lips.
Again and again, we encounter moving portraits such as these, which reveal an incredible complicity that must have developed between Dorothea Lange and her models. For example, a young girl intensely gazes into the lens, seeming to express the unsettling gravity of the human condition. Elsewhere, a dead eagle is crucified on a barbed wire fence. The harsh reality is never far removed, and when Dorothea Lange photographs a little girl on the side of a road, who is rubs her eyes awake, while a car behind her suggests that she may have just been abandoned.
Ode to weightlessness
It is striking how many photographs in the book show only one part of a human body: in one, it is the legs of a woman in dress; in another, an old man’s arms stretched out through a window into sunlight; in yet another, the bare feet of a little girl. By singling out individual body parts, by fragmenting the body, Dorothea Lange is engaging in pathbreaking aesthetic research to be picked up by many photographers after her, like David Goldblatt in his famous series of human hands.
The anxiety we may feel at the sight of fragmented bodies is dispelled by a paean to weightlessness that comes to life in Lange’s work. Take for example the helium balloons inflated for a county fair, the white linen fluttering on a clothesline in a garden, or the half-funny half-eerie ad for a television set, which exhorts us to “See the world before you leave it!”
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin