Dorothea Lange’s “Death of a Valley”

I looked at Dorothea Lange’s and Pirkle Jones, “Death of a Valley,” Aperture 8:3 (1960) for this week’s reading and looking assignments. Our focus for this week is on storytelling and how the juxtaposition of images and words can tell a story or develop an idea.

I chose 6 pages that contained images that stood out to me. The first shows an empty barn with dark windows and doorways that look burned out, abandoned, and long-neglected. The stark whiteness of the building contrasts with the rolling grey landscape and the cloud cover overhead. The text talked about families disappearing, melting away and emptying the valley.  It evoked different senses – the sound of ripping wood, the smell of tarweed… the caption brought about another dimension of the image. People had to move their houses to move to higher ground and the result seems to have ravaged the landscape.

The second image showed almost a vignette of vignettes.. the abandoned portraits that were left on the floor of the house when the families moved on, are poignant reminders of what used to exist there. You can tell that the wood of the floorboards and the paint are all slowly wasting away from neglect.

The last two images show the dark holes of graves that had been dug up as people left, and the neat mound of dirt that lay to the side. This is an image you don’t normally see, and it makes you think about the grief, the life of the person, what it was like for the families in death, and the stories that the dirt could have told just by being witness to generations of history. The downed oak tree is also one that is quite sad, and unnecessary. Everything that the oak stood for – longevity, time, shade for the cattle, a source of comfort or respite in the valley heat, landmarks, places where people met when the oak was the only real marker on a map – all of these have been devalued once the oak tree was taken down.

Dorothea Lange does a great job telling much of the story with her riveting images that are full of life, love, sorrow and pain. I think that 90% of the story is told with the photographs, but that her poetic captions add another dimension and layer of information that helps the reader to fully experience what it was like back then. Her use of light and shadow in the black and white format is impeccable .

I chose this set of images because of the poignancy of the images, which generally seems to pique my interest. The images would not have been as strong without the words to bring context and deeper sense of importance to the movement of people during this time. They also caught my attention because there seems to be a level of sadness or loneliness on my site as well. There are very few people who walk around the railroad tracks, but when they do, it brings life and utility to them.

In coming up with my own sequence of images, I’ve tried to show the subtleties of the rail landscape and the interesting juxtapositions that occur when it is situated in the middle of a university campus. I wanted to intrigue the reader by piquing their interest with details, and interesting colors, shapes, and mysteries. Taken individually, Lange’s images show significant detail that when strung together, become a whole story with different facets of peoples’ lives that have affected the landscape. I am doing something similar with my own photo essay and hope that a series of small snapshots or vignettes show how people have put a hand on the rail landscape even though it is usually devoid of people.

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