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Artful Volumes

By Zack Hatfield

Summer 2020

Dorothea Lange, A very blue eagle. Along California highway, 1936. Library of CongressDorothea Lange, A very blue eagle. Along California highway, 1936. Library of Congress


Of all the photographs in Dorothea Lange’s recent survey at the Museum of Modern Art, the one that has stayed with me the most was, most likely, not taken by Lange: a small, black-and-white image of a man’s liver-spotted hands clasping someone’s back. That back was Lange’s, the hands those of her husband. When the young photographer Sam Contis discovered that Lange had included the intimate composition in a 1966 retrospective at MoMA under her own name, Contis decided to adopt a similar approach; her DAY SLEEPER (Mack, $35) appropriates images from the documentarian’s archive, sequencing rarely or never-before-seen photographs into an ingenious new monograph, plumbing the unconscious of Lange’s oeuvre to dream her work anew. Consult the meditative captions by Lange found in the book’s appendix, and Day Sleeper unfolds as a memoir, sparsely interleaved with blank spreads: lulls that remind us of how canons are shaped, and unshaped, by omission. From the cover shot—Lange’s son dozing with a shirt over his eyes, one of many nap time portraits—to southwestern landscapes, domestic tableaux, and street reportage, these pictures arrive to us today with a new immediacy, not least of all Lange’s records of economic injustice. But the volume impresses most in the unlikely relationships Contis builds between subjects, as when a mountainous Californian vista—a two-page bleed—precedes a small, half-shadowed hand, or how an eagle crucified on a barbed-wire fence is followed by a gentle, gauzy photograph of Japanese American internees weaving camouflage nets for the US military—an image both beautiful and appalling. There are endless ways to see something, Day Sleeper quietly insists. And to see how others saw, too.