February 13th, 2015
“Photographing the Familiar” by Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon
This excerpt from Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon’s essay for Aperture magazine #2, from 1952, appears in The Aperture Magazine Anthology.
Photography today appears to be in a state of flight.
This is clearly a harsh judgment. Some will feel it to be a false judgment; others will think it clumsy or ill-considered. But still others may feel it to have merit. They, perhaps less devoutly enlisted in this or that photographic cause, may find in their uncertainties a reason to believe the judgment sound. Themselves in disorder, they may sense some design of a larger disorder. It is an effort to explain that design—and in the conviction that there can be found for disorder a remedy—that we say what we do: that photography appears to be in a state of flight.
But why flight? What in flight from? If in flight, what can be done?
To begin with, photography is still a very young technique—one that has found power and expression in the mastery of its own mechanics. This is not only true of photography. It applies to all young techniques—to the
steam engine and the camera alike. During the early years, all photographers were in a sense inventors, and photography as a field is still infant enough to have undeveloped in it some of the features of invention. Color,
for instance, is beginning now to assert itself as a photographic value; there is excited talk of a new dimension in the motion picture; in an age perhaps more than any other dedicated to techniques, science presents to the photographic technician a challenge more important than any he has had to face before.
But, on the whole, the day is gone when the photographer could find in exploration of his equipment the expression he sought. Settled to a different pace, technical advance has permitted the photographer to catch up. The ranges of technique have been largely conquered; and that exploration ended, the photographer must seek another.
Now it is no accident that the photographer becomes a photographer any more than the lion tamer becomes a lion tamer. Just as there is a necessary element of hazard in one, in the other is a necessary element of
the mechanical. For better or for worse, the destiny of the photographer is bound up with the destinies of a machine. In this alliance is presented a very special problem. Ours is a time of the machine, and ours is a need
to know that the machine can be put to creative human effort. If it is not, the machine can destroy us. It is within the power of the photographer to help prohibit this destruction, and help make the machine an agent of more
good than of evil. Though not a poet, nor a painter, nor a composer, he is yet an artist, and as an artist undertakes not only risks but responsibility. And it is with responsibility that both the photographer and his machine are brought to their ultimate tests. His machine must prove that it can be endowed with the passion and the humanity of the photographer; the photographer must prove that he has the passion and the humanity with which to endow the machine.
This certainly is one of the great questions of our time. Upon such an endowment of the mechanical device may depend not only the state of the present but the prospects of the future. The photographer is privileged that it is a question which in his work he can help to answer.
But does he?
Unfortunately, very often not. For in his natural zeal to master his craft, he has too long relied upon the technical to engage his energies. Now the technical has relaxed its challenge, he is often left with the feeling that there is nowhere to go. He is lost; he is confused; he is bewildered. Accustomed to discovery, now suddenly he is obliged to interpret.