Notes from Home: Dorothea’s Camera
By Trudy Wischemann
“Do you know my wife, Dorothea Lange?” the old man asked me in the present tense, although the woman, known for her Dust Bowl portrait “Migrant Mother,” had been dead more than 10 years. It was the summer of 1976. The man was Paul Taylor, professor emeritus of Economics at UC Berkeley, and I had walked across campus to his office with him at his request instead of studying for a meteorology midterm. When I said “No,” he began showing me her photographs that he kept in his file drawers. Thus began my lifelong relationship with Paul, although he has been dead now for almost 35 years.
One Sunday he called me to come to his home in the Berkeley hills. I was preparing to update the Arvin-Dinuba study originally undertaken by one of his graduate students in the 1940’s, Walter Goldschmidt. Paul had supervised the original study and kept it alive by citing it continually in his efforts for enforcement of the acreage limitation provisions of federal reclamation law. An update was overdue.
When I arrived, Paul handed me a black leather box that, when opened, contained one of Dorothea’s cameras. The lens slid out on a track followed by accordion-like bellows attached to a square box which she held while she squinted through the rangefinder on top. When it wasn’t mounted on a tripod, she balanced the extended camera on her knee. It is the camera most often shown in the documentaries about her career, which started in the bread lines and street protests on San Francisco’s wharf during the Great Depression, moved to the streams of migrants coming into California from the Dust Bowl, then the evacuation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II.
That her hands had made use of this camera to capture what her heart and mind saw through her eyes was powerful, even a little intimidating. I protested, knowing I would never have the nerve or the expertise to use it. He insisted I take it. That camera, and the memory of the gift, have kept me inspired over the intervening years, when I might have allowed doubt to wipe away the importance of the work Paul and I did together. I have long thought it was the most important possession I owned.
A couple of weeks ago I heard myself think that I didn’t need to keep it with me anymore. Now that I’m finishing the book on Paul’s contributions, I realized that I might be able to give it to a museum where others could be similarly inspired. Just days later, on the weekend of Oct. 7-8, it was stolen from my house, along with my flute and autoharp, my jewelry box full of earrings from Long’s Drug and some family treasures, as well as my HP All-in-One printer that I bought at Target on sale for $35 four years ago. They took all my other cameras as well, including my grandfather’s Brownie and my Aunt Hazel’s Argus rangefinder in the red plaid camera bag she loved. It was painful.
But, in looking for the proper description of the historic camera, I found this quote of Dorothea’s, one she used often. “The camera,” she said, “is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” Dorothea’s images have taught us how to see for years, and continue teaching us today. That camera did its work well past its useful life. I just pray that it’s somewhere teaching someone to see again.
Trudy Wischemann is a remedial documentary photographer who writes. You can send her your favorite camera stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.