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Dorothea’s eye on humanity

Clare Champion, 20th May 2005

The myth of Dorothea Lange was exploded in Ennis by her son, Daniel Dixon, last Thursday night. An audience of close to 300 heard Dixon explain that his mother’s chronicling of the Great Depression led to a clouding of her reputation. “The photographs she captured during this time has resulted in a false impression of her,” he said. “Her interests were more diverse and passionate.”

Dorothea spent several weeks in Clare in 1954 documenting life and leisure throughout the county, and this body of photographs, said Dixon, has helped others find a greater appreciation for her life’s work. “The photographs Dorothea Lange took during her time in Clare have become part of the heritage and history of the county,” he continued. “And that work had also allowed others understand her genius.”

When Lange ventured to Clare from her California home over five decades ago it was the first time she had left US soil. She was accompanied by her son who wrote an essay to compliment Lange’s photographs, published in Life magazine in March 1955.

Some of those photographed by Lange were present at Daniel Dixon’s audio-visual presentation at the DeValera Library [images of the presentation] and also heard County Librarian Noel Crowley recall Lange’s time in Clare. “I met the great Clare photographer Denis Wylde some years back,” said Crowley, “and he told me about his friendship with Dorothea. He travelled through Clare with her, loaned her some photographic gear and he remembered her as an extremely patient photographer. He knew her well.”

Dixon spoke of his mother, one of the most influential photographers to this day, in unsentimental tones and narrated her journey through life with detail and great honesty. “My brother gave her a bunch of flowers for Mother’s Day,” he recalled. “She didn’t return the gesture with a hug. Instead she took a photograph.” It was this unyielding passion for photography that helped her excel as a photographer and enabled her to begin the modern genre of photojournalism. This was achieved despite the affliction of polio, which Dixon also addressed. “Polio withered her right foot,” he said. “It was a hindrance. She moved slowly because of it but this probably helped her work. Dorothea Lange was a very deliberate photographer. She was not one for grab shots.”

Lange transcended the concept of photographer and became journalist, historian and artist. These aspects of her talent are highlighted in her Clare work and this period of her progression has been stored for all time by Gerry Mullins, who archived Lange’s Clare photographs in the book Dorothea Lange’s Ireland. “She looked at and into the people of Clare,” added Dixon. “There are photographs of the Clare people at hurling matches, at snug gatherings. She also made beautiful portraits of the eternal landscape of Clare. “There are photographs of faith, age, strength and eternity. She also captured the future of Clare in 1954. She believed in the children of the county. She knew the people because they were rooted in the land and they made her feel at home,” he added.

She was drawn to Clare through the work of Harvard scholar Conrad Arensberg who lived outside Doolin from 1932 to 1934 in order to experience rural life in Ireland. Arensberg’s experience in Clare was recorded in The Irish Countryman, a celebrated book that painted word pictures of the social and economic traditions of rural living. It was this publication that resulted in Lange capturing close to 2,000 images of Clare.

Known internationally for the seminal image The Migrant Mother, Lange, according to her son, believed that photography helped communicate the universal language. “We only have one universal language,” Dorothea Lange stated, “and that’s the human face. Look at the next strange face you see and behind those eyes there is a whole life.”

Her work in Clare has contributed to her international recognition and Dorothea Lange’s Ireland stands as a record of Clare of another time. The link between the photographer and the county stands for all time and, as Daniel Dixon said, “continues to illuminate and inspire”.

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