Modern Migrants: A Berkeley Photographer Revisits Dorothea Lange's Portraits of Disenfranchised Californians

The photo called Migrant Mother — taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression — ushered in a new era of documentary photography. It also changed the life of Lange and her subject, Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant worker in central California who was shown clutching her small children as she peered at the distance in seeming despair. Lange specialized in showing hardship across American towns, and Thompson became an iconic symbol of that despair. Years after the image became famous, Thompson came to resent it and Lange. She said Lange never even asked her name, never inquired about her circumstances — just said a few words, took photos, then took off in her car. Migrant Mother was the photographic equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

The fact remains that Lange, who died in 1965, was one of America's pre-eminent photographers. In Katy Grannan's new exhibit at San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery, “The 99,” she uses Lange as a springboard to achieve an arguably higher purpose: Revisit roughly the same central California region that Lange careened through 70 years earlier, photograph people who look to be leading challenging lives, but give these people a say in the matter. Grannan's subjects are still anonymous, still without full names attached. But they got to know Grannan and she them. There's both intimacy and mystery in the photos, many of which have Grannan's trademark setup: subjects against a stark white wall, under a beating sun, which smothers faces with an intense glare.

Grannan spent three years on the photos in “The 99,” which is named for the freeway, Highway 99, that cuts through the Central Valley and connects Sacramento and Stockton with Modesto, Visalia, Fresno, and Bakersfield. She began the project in 2011, at the tail end of the recession that claimed millions of American jobs and foreclosed millions of American homes.

“There were obvious parallels and plenty of references in the news to the Great Depression,” says Grannan, who lives in Berkeley, which is where Lange lived for many years. “Dorothea Lange's work was made right here, practically around the corner. It seemed like the right time to retrace some of her steps and see what had, or hadn't changed.”

One thing that changed: Where Lange found crowds of people, including large families in migrant camps, Grannan found solitary figures and small groups. The people in Grannan's portfolio are alone with themselves and their thoughts, as in the tattooed man naked from the waist up, who clutches his chest; and the craggy-faced woman who squints into the camera. The close-up shots of people against white backgrounds are complemented by scenes of people on the move, like the woman named Deb who wades in the Tuolumne River, and the person named Kiki who pays a debt in the doorway of a Modesto motel. Then there are the black-and-white vistas of land and hills that stretch ahead in King County and Stanislaus County. The area is beautiful, even inspiring. Modesto, which held special attraction for Grannan, is the largest city in Stanislaus County. At the worst point of the recent recession, Modesto had an unemployment rate of 16 percent. The rate is still 10 percent, and one of Grannan's “99” images captures a couple on a mattress under a bridge. The water, plants, and hills almost make it appear as if the couple is having a picnic.

“I feel at home there,” Grannan says of Modesto in an e-mail interview. “It can seem like a dusty, bleak place but there's also something very beautiful and quiet that I'm drawn to.”

Grannan, who graduated from Yale in 1999 with an MFA in photography, has found her own way to capture both bleak and beautiful elements of people in the street. “The 99,” Grannan's fourth solo exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery, is a continuation of her “Boulevard” series of photos in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Grannan photographed people who at first glance might be considered strange, curious, or even homeless — “characters,” to put it kindly. Grannan humanizes the people she meets without glamorizing them. The people she photographed in Modesto will also appear in a documentary, The Nine, that Grannan is making about the city with the help of her assistant, Hannah Hughes.

“She and I have become part of the community and part of their story,” Grannan says. “Of course that level of involvement comes with some complications. It's not always a party. The film addresses all of that — our presence in the community and the unexpected joys and complications of those relationships. Most important, though, is a shared, elemental struggle: How and where does any one of us find meaning and beauty in our daily lives (which can often seem so maddeningly ordinary and mundane)?”

That question is at the root of Grannan's work. Grannan, and her subjects, want her photos to inspire curiosity, not pity or a handout. The people Grannan got to know, she says, take one day at a time. Their reward is another day, which is all they can ask for.

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