Category Archives: documentary

Documentary about photographer Dorothea Lange

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Though I repeated the claim that Henri Cartier-Bresson is “the father of photojournalism,” I think there are other contenders, such as Walker Evans. But for “the mother of photojournalism,” I think that Dorothea Lange (1885-1965) has a lock. I saw a screening of the 1995 documentary “Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life” directed by Meg Partridge that was followed by a Q&A session with the film-maker, her sister Elizabeth (author of a book with the same name), and their father Rondal Partridge, who was photographer Imogen Cunningham’s son, Lange’s assistant during the 1930s, and appears onscreen within the documentary.

The film primarily looks at Lange photos with audtiotaped interviews done in Lange’s last years for KQED (the San Francisco Bay Area’s public radio and television station) and for the Berkeley Oral History Project. In some of these audios, Lange was talking about the photo that the movie camera pans. In others, the film-maker (presumably with input from her father and sister) chose apposite images. There are also stills of Lange, most taken by Rondal Partridge, and interviews of him and some others who knew Lange well. As far as I recall, there is no movie footage of Lange or of her two husbands, painter Maynard Dixon and rural sociologist/economist Paul Taylor.

The documentary that springs to (my) mind for comparison is “The Impassioned Eye” with Henri Cartier-Bresson filmed looking at images he recorded and talking about the circumstances of shooting the photos. The onscreen co-operation of Cartier-Bresson was an advantage not available to Partridge in the case of Lange. It is offset by (1) Lange not being dubbed into English (but speaking it), (2) Lange being far more articulate and self-conscious about what she was trying to do than Cartier-Bresson, and (3) “A Visual Life” being more a moving(-camera) picture than “The Impassioned Eye,” which is a glorified slide show. The Cartier-Bresson documentary is a great slide-show of Cartier-Bresson photographs (and a few drawings he did). “A Visual Life” uses the camera moving over old photos that is central to the documentaries Ken Burns has made.

The vertical dimension of most of Lange’s photos is greater than the horizontal, whereas movie cameras are wider than high. Meg Partridge was acutely keenly aware of the problem (I know that she was from her being able to figure out what I was trying to ask about film composition differing from still-camera composition!)* and showed the whole photo (Lange’s composition) before zooming in or panning up or down through Lange’s photos (what I’d consider Partridge’s compositions using Lange’s images). I think that Partridge’s compositions are very fine and prefer movies to slide shows. Plus the Lange audio plus Lange video portions are interspersed with footage in which the viewer can see lips moving (talking heads).

I think that the choices of images and interviews are excellent and that the 46-minute documentary provides an excellent overview of Lange’s photography with some insights into the difficulties a female professional and mother had in the “man’s world” of (first) studio portrait photography and (then) documentary photography.

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Lange’s best-known photographs is the “Okie Madonna,” a mother who was one of those driven west from the “Dust Bowl” erosion during the Great Depression, and of a San Francisco breadline. The human costs of the mechanization of agriculture and the displacement of people (farmers wiped out during the “Dust Bowl,” black cotton sharecroppers becoming factory workers during WWII, the removal of Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast to concentration camps inland) were what Lange documented most extensively — and intensively (and much of the displacement she documented was occasioned by mechanized/corporate agriculture overwhelming yeoman farmers).

Despite debilitating physical problems, including a leg the growth of which was stunted by polio contracted when she was seven, Lange made many striking photographs and, despite her focus on the downtrodden, managed to get support (from the New Deal federal government and later projects for Life and Fortune magazines). “A Visual Life” shows some beautiful photos of people from Lange’s post-WWII travels with Taylor as well as her better-known documentation of California Central Valley economic refugees and the rounding-up of Japanese Americans.

In the Q&A, Rondal Partridge forcefully presented his view that photography is documentation, not art (which is not, he added, to say that a photograph cannot be beautiful or artfully composed). I don’t see that the two are necessarily opposed. I’m not sure whether Lange thought they were, but I think that many of her photographs are both.

©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

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Photographer Paul Strand

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Along with Edward Weston (1885-1958), Paul Strand (1890–1976) is my favorite photographer. Both were pioneers of very sharp-focus semi-abstractions, breaking with the gauzy pictorialism of Alfred Stieglitz (1854-1946) et al. Both photographed people as well as objects and landscapes, Weston mostly portraits and nudes, Strand portraits and photos of group. Plus Strand shot movies, most notably “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936), which he did not direct, and “Native Land” (1942), which he did. Strand and his friend, the painter Charles Sheeler, also made the pioneer urban documentary “Manhatta” (1921).

I don’t recall who in the 1989 documentary “Strand: Under the Dark Cloth” remarked that Strand didn’t talk about himself, though he was articulate talking and writing about photography in general and particular photographs and series of photographs he took. A very old Georgia O’Keeffe and a not-as-old widow, Hazel Kingsbury Strand, express views of his personality as well as his work in interview segments in the movie, along with Strand’s movie-making partner Leo Hurwitz, but I came away with no sense about the person other than that he was very focused on his work and that he was a man of the left, working on the anti-Fascist (pro-Republic) “Heart of Spain” (1937), and pro-union.

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Rather than “in-depth” in any psychological or political sense, the movie provides extensive review of his work, both film clips (whetting my appetite to see the 1936 Mexican fishermen movie “The Wave”) and still photographs, including some of my favorites (the Italian peasant family on their doorstep) and many I don’t recall having seen previously.

I’d have no problem with an 81-minute Strand slideshow, but with access to opinionated people who knew the great photographer, I wish probing and/or follow-up questions had been asked. In particular, the last Mrs. Strand, who was herself a photographer when she met him and helped him, especially as he developed arthritis and was eventually house-bound (photographing their garden) says that she came to loathe photography and stopped photographing. How could an interviewer fail to ask her to explain and elaborate?

I found the music, credited to Québecois composers Jean Derome and René Lussier not quite grating, but at least annoying. Perhaps if I had not been listening to one of the greatest movie music masters, Bernard Hermann, I might have been less annoyed?

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At any rate, I would recommend the photographs of Paul Strand to anyone unfamiliar with them, the slideshow and film-clip aspects of the documentary. IMO, the movie, directed by John Walker (A Drummer’s Dream), written by Seaton Findlay (Janis) coulda/shoulda been more engaging, aloof and unrevealing of his personal feelings as Strand was.

 

©2012, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Looking at some of Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘s photographs with him

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Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is considered by many as “the father of photojournalism” and did much to advance his own legend as someone who clicked the shutter at exactly the right moment. There is no question that he shot many sriking images of people, in a very wide variety of places, in often very geometric compositions. I admire many of his portraits of other artists (the documentary “The Impassioned Eye” includes many of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard) and writers (Arthur Miller says nothing about the Cartier-Bresson portrait of himself but praises one Cartier-Bresson took of his deceased wife) and photos of uncelebrated Russian, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, French, Chinese, and American individuals, but most like his pictures of human silhouettes within cityscapes and landscapes.

As a slideshow of Cartier-Bresson photographs and drawings with musical accompaniment from Bach, Mozart, and Ravel, “The Impassioned Eye” would definitely rate 5 stars. Notoriously unwilling to be photographed, it was probably a major accomplishment to get him to appear in a documentary, even doing little more than sitting down looking at old photographs (he largely ceased shooting photos during the early 1970s) and drawings and at some paintings in the Louvre. He says very little about them and rarely shows much reaction to what he holds up. (This reminds me of William Burrough’s quip that Paul Bowles’s unrevealing memoir Without Stopping should have been titled Without Telling (anything anout himself, that is).)

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Arthur Miller, Isabelle Huppert, and some photographers less famous than Cartier-Bresson (Ferdinando Scianna, Josef Koudelka) sing his praises, but no one supplies much insight into how he did what he did or any discusses any development (if there was any—the images from the 1930s and those from the 1960s do not have a different look).

There is nothing biographical except a passing mention of his early association with surrealists. Cartier-Bresson praises the red in a Vermeer, opines that drawing the figures of Rubens paintings in the Louvre was good training for him as a youth, tells of meeting Gandhi minutes before he went out and was shot, and suggests that hiding from the Nazis during 1943 had a permanent effect on his own reclusive personality.

I mentioned the legend of Cartier-Bresson. Its influential foundation was built around the 1952 “The Decisive Moment” show (and book). There is no question that Cartier-Bresson had an eye for composition and for framing, but in addition to the legendary instances of shooting at the right moment, he in fact made multiple other shots around the one later printed. The ability to pick out “the decisive moment” was after the fact, picking out the one to print from multiple shots (contact sheets), not just clicking once at “the decisive moment.” This is demonstrated beyond any argument in the recently published (this year) Henri Cartier Bresson Scrapbook from the 1930s and 40s.

One does not expect Cartier-Bresson to have debunked his legend or to have opened up about his life or “processes,” and a slide-show of his work is well worth seeing. But the documentary cannot compete with the ones of Picasso at work (The Mystery of Picasso) or of Alberto Giacometti at work and looking at a retrospective of his work. Also, I wish that there was a choice between subtitles for the French and dubbing into English. Having English dubbing blotting out the French after a few words of each speaker seems to me the worst of both worlds: one wants to hear him in a documentary that is mostly him talking!

Heinz Bütler is credited with directing the 72-minute documentary “Henri Cartier-Bresson: Biographie eines Blicks.” There is no indication of whether he was also the interviewer or when the interviews took place (my best guess is 2002, since the documentary aired on Swiss television in 2003 and is copyrighted that year by Neue Zûrcher Zeitung); the Palm Pictures DVD became available in late 2006.

©2007, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

originally posted on AssociatedContent.com, a site that was bought and obliterated by Yahoo

Also see my review of C-B’s portraits collected in An Inner SIlence.