Dorothea Lange

When I was young, I was attracted to black and white and bright colors. The contrast drew me in. My appreciation for bold colors also reflected my world view: I saw life as black and white. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun noticing paler colors, especially gray. A shade that in my younger days was almost invisible to me has become a lovely hue that I notice constantly. And the variations in the tones of grays (charcoal, mink, ash, slate, silver, pewter, stone, platinum) are fascinating. Again, this reflects my current world view. After getting some life experience under my belt, I’ve come to appreciate the gray areas. Most of life is not black and white. I am becoming more and more comfortable living in the gray areas. I don’t have to know everything or figure everything out. Much of life is a mystery.

In the same way, I’ve come to appreciate tv shows and movies that are exquisitely boring rather than flashy, fast-moving entertainment. Last night I came across a PBS special about Dorothea Lange, an American photographer. In the past I would have skipped over this channel, seeking a more exciting, bright, and shiny show. But the sight of Dorothea was mesmerizing. Some of the footage had been shot in 1965, a month before her death. She was a gnarled old woman whose features had revealed their true character by the end of her life. And yet, she was supple; she sat with one of her legs bent up like a small child and moved like a dancer, using her whole body. (I later learned that she had contracted polio as a young girl and her leg and foot were misshapen as a result. She walked with a limp…a graceful limp to me.). In some of the videos, Dorothea was wearing a frilly top and a necklace of large beads. The juxtaposition of gnarled and feminine, disabled yet graceful, and trail-blazing yet childlike drew me to Dorothea like a magnet.

Just listen to how she talks about her photography: “When you’re working well, all your instinctive powers are in operation and you don’t know why you do the things you do. Sometimes you annihilate yourself. That is something one needs to be able to do.” “I am trying to get lost again. You live for maybe two, three hours as completely as possible a visual experience.” “There are moments when time stands still. You hope it will wait for you. That fraction of a second captured on that tiny piece of sensitive film.”

I wish I had known Dorothea. Her words ring true, as if she was speaking just to me, today. It’s hard to believe that she died the same year that I was born. My next post will be a Show-and-Tell about Dorothea Lange.

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