The J. Paul Getty Museum

Grayson, California / Doorstep Document / Death in the Doorway

Object Details

Title:

Grayson, California / Doorstep Document / Death in the Doorway

Artist/Maker:

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895 - 1965)

Culture:

American

Place:

Grayson, California, United States (Place Created)

Date:

negative 1938; print about 1950s

Medium:

Gelatin silver print

Object Number:

2000.43.3

Dimensions:

18.5 × 23.3 cm (7 5/16 × 9 3/16 in.)

Copyright:

© Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland

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Object Description

Regarding this picture, Dorothea Lange's field notes report: "Grayson was a migratory agricultural laborers' shack town. It was during the season of the pea harvest. Late afternoon about 6 o'clock. Boys were playing baseball in the road that passes this building, which was used as a church. Otherwise, this corpse, lying at the church, was alone, unattended, and unexplained." The full negative she made there represents not just this doorway but the entire whitewashed gabled façade. The concrete steps in front of the entrance and foundation blocks are visible. Apparently the form in the doorway was what drew Lange to the scene, however; it has been suggested that she later realized this central feature was important enough to carry the composition and proceeded to concentrate on the portion of the negative with the shallow portal holding the body. She published an even more severely cut-down version in the 1940 US Camera Annual. Bearing the title Doorstep Document, it eliminates the three plain boards that frame the doorway, making the depth of the threshold less evident and the wrapped figure and worn double doors more prominent and funereal.

It is not known why Lange identified the form as a corpse rather than a homeless person. Today we are more inclined to think the latter, since such scenes are common. The relaxed, uncovered pose of the feet indicates a voluntary reclining position. Lange was also some distance away when she made the exposure. One of the playing children may have suggested the corpse idea to test its shock value, and perhaps Lange adopted it for future propaganda purposes. Grayson was just a small town southwest of Modesto, and this church was probably one of the few places of refuge it offered.

It would seem peculiar for the feet of a dead person to be exposed. Here they represent the life, the personality, of this anonymous citizen. Always sensitive to the appearance and performance of others' feet, due to her own deformity, Lange made hundreds of photographs on the theme. This one is among the most melancholy.
Judith Keller, Dorothea Lange, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), 40. © 2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Exhibitions
Exhibitions
The Public Record: Photographs of the Great Depression from the J. Paul Getty Museum (March 10 to May 19, 2002)
  • Pomona College Museum of Art (Claremont), March 10 to May 19, 2002
About Life: The Photographs of Dorothea Lange (October 15, 2002 to February 9, 2003)
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center (Los Angeles), October 15, 2002 to February 9, 2003
Bibliography
Bibliography

Keller, Judith. Dorothea Lange. In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), p.41.