If you go looking to document social problems, you can’t flinch when you find them. Here is a particularly unflinching photograph by Dorothea Lange, taken as part of her work for the Farm Security Administration. As the title “Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma” suggests, this child was one of many displaced and relocated during the economic Depression and drought of 1936. Lange is famous for her documentation of the human costs of the Depression, especially “Migrant Mother,” one of the best known photographs in American history. She is now the subject of a new biography by Linda Gordon and she is a main character in Errol Morris’ recent seven-part blog in The New York Times about Depression-era photography.
The title “Damaged Child” seems overdetermined, as does the portrait in some ways. The ragged clothes falling off the scrawny body, the uncombed hair, the grim background…. Haven’t we seen this before? In Jacob Riis’s turn-of-the-century photographs of New York City slums? In John Thomson’s similar portraits from Glasgow and London? This boyish girl may be particularly bold, with her direct stare into the camera and black marks for eyes, but not unique. Of course, her typicality is part of the social message of the photograph: there are many just like her and we shouldn’t turn away or move on.
What seems, then, most surprising in the photograph is the positioning of her hands. Hidden and held close, the girl’s hands suggest a shyness and self-protection that the rest of the image belies. It is as if metaphorically she is refusing to ask for a handout. Gordon tells us that Lange moved slowly as she set up for portraits, fussing with the camera and lighting until her subjects relaxed. But this girl never relaxed. And Lange, betraying her background in studio portraiture, positions her beautifully, slightly off center against the textured backdrop. Both photographer and model seem to know exactly what to do.