Recent hammer prices indicated a healthy market for Southern photography, particularly images of the 1930s by the Masters. Works by Dorthea Lange were the highlight of the Phillip’s photography auction PASSION & HUMANITY: THE SUSIE TOMPKINS BUELL COLLECTION (NEW YORK AUCTION 4 APRIL 2019). Numbers were higher than expected indicating Southern photography continues to attract collectors beyond its region.
Dorothea Lange is remembered almost exclusively for “Migrant Mother” (1936), her photograph of an American agricultural labourer resting her chin on her hand while her young children rest their heads on her shoulders. A picture of perseverance and dignity in the face of hardship, it became a famous image of the Great Depression. But it was far from a one-off. “Politics of Seeing”, a retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre, gives Lange’s four-decade-long career the attention it deserves. It shows how her gift for imbuing personal moments with a universal resonance made her a pioneer of social-documentary photography.
Weathering the storm “Migrant Mother” (1936)
Lange, who was born in 1895, had a difficult childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the age of seven she contracted polio and was left with a permanent limp. A few years later her father abandoned the family. Lange headed west in her early 20s, ending up in San Francisco in 1918, where she fell in with the social and artistic elite, became a successful portrait photographer, and enjoyed what appeared to be a charmed bohemian existence. The photographs from this time have a frivolous, fleeting feel to them.
When the Great Depression arrived in the early 1930s Lange decided to use her talent to benefit society. She wanted to others to notice the hardship she noticed on the streets. She would later comment, “the camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Lange went on several long road trips through the Midwest and Deep South while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency. She was able to use the skills she had developed in her studio to strike up intimacy with her subjects, transporting the viewer into what would have been otherwise unimaginable circumstances.
Throughout her career Lange addressed issues as disparate as poverty, the environment, migration, urbanisation, racism and women’s rights. Always, though, her main focus was on the importance of family and community as a source of hope and endurance. It was her ability to empathise with people that gives her work a timeless poignancy
ABOUT THE AUCTION:
Susie Tompkins Buell: A Collector's Story:
While primarily known for co-founding Esprit and The North Face, as well as for her political activism and philanthropy, Susie Tompkins Buell has played an equally large role in the photography market. Her early engagement with the medium in the 1980s and 1990s shaped the market in the decades that followed and brought a new awareness to photography. The quality of the collection, in terms of its overall aesthetic, thematic unities, and the fineness of its individual parts, is a testament to her vision and determination. Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collectionwill include masterworks by Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange and Consuelo Kanaga, among others.