What’s in a frame? (And, um, what isn’t?)

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“The [Office of War Information’s] propaganda operation even used and defanged Lange’s [Farm Security Administration] work. In one case, a 1939 photograph of a typical, run-down North Carolina country store/filling station with a group of young men goofing off on the porch was transformed into a World War II poster by cropping and superimposing a message: ‘This is America….  Where a fellow can start on the home team and wind up in the big league… Where there is always room at the top for the fellow who has it on the ball….This is your America!… Keep it free!’

“Lange had made five photographs of the scene, showing about a dozen figures, several in baseball uniforms, preparing to play with a local league; mugging for the camera, they began picking up and swinging one guy by his arms and legs. In the original context, these images signaled the economic backwardness, inactivity and racism of the rural South. At the far end of the porch, distinctly removed from the others, was a black man who did not participate in the roughhousing, but sat tight with a tense smile. In the poster both sides of the image were cropped, and it showed only young white men standing in manly, confident but relaxed postures, ready to play the quintessentially American game.”

— From “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits” (2009) by Linda Gordon

The official caption on this Fourth of July image puts it “near Chapel Hill,” where Lange worked closely with Howard Odum’s Institute for Research in Social Science. The “Cedar Grove” modestly marking the players’ uniforms is a community in northwest Orange County.

[NCM note: The image above comes from the Library of Congress’s American Memory website: http://memory.loc.gov/pnp/fsa/8b34000/8b34000/8b34021v.jpg]

7 thoughts on “What’s in a frame? (And, um, what isn’t?)”

  1. Cool post! I never realized any of that series were actually used by the government.

    But, that’s what happens when the government pays you to take photographs for them: they retain the rights to use the photos any way they see fit.

    I am so happy that Lange traveled through this area and took so many wonderful photographs that are available to us today.

  2. I wanted to provide a better link for the image, but the url is extremely (let me stress “extremely”) long. So, just click on the image above. It will take you to the image on the American Memory website.

  3. Another telling passage from “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits”:
    “Lange became aware… that the rural South could be part of a global economy even as its workers knew only their local community. She was shocked to find that a Gordonton [Person County], North Carolina, woman had never heard of California….
    “This was changing, Lange observed as she listened to the aspirations of her interviewees. The woman who did not know about California had heard of Amelia Earhart and wished she could travel. ‘I’ve never been nowhere except to Durham and Danville. All I’ve seen is corn and tobacco — and a houseful of children.’ “

  4. And the caption thereto (hat tip to shorpy.com):
    “Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway.” 4×5 nitrate negative by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration.

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