Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard (1974)

Concrete Island continues the obsession with cars and car crashes which was evident in the experimental texts which made up The Atrocity Exhibition and which then exploded into the fetish pornography of Crash.

It’s a short novel and a lot more restrained than either of its predecessors, but still explores a mind-bending situation and eventually takes us into familiar Ballard psychotic territory.

35-year-old Robert Maitland is a partner in a successful architectural practice in Marylebone. He is married and lives with his wife Catherine and eight-year-old son David somewhere near Richmond. He is, rather inevitably, having an affair with a younger woman at work, Helen Fairfax, and has spent the past few nights with her. This, apart from showing what a rake he is, is important to the plot.

(In the 1960s it seems to have become fashionable to have extra-marital affairs, amid much talk about free love and the death of marriage and women’s liberation, see, for example, the fiction of John Updike, specifically Couples. At some point during the 1970s it just became a rather tiresome tic of bourgeois fiction. And by the 1980s it had become a really hackneyed cliché, the subject of bloated, boring mainstream fiction [see Stanley and the Women or The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis]. The decline of the ‘affair’ as a token of intellectual adventurousness into a symptom of middle-aged complacency can be tracked in the fiction of J.G. Ballard).

The plot

The novel opens dramatically with a clinical description of a car crash.

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre.

The Jag careers through some wooden barriers lining the road and plunges down an embankment into a large overgrown grassy area.

When he comes round from his daze, Maitland staggers up the loose earth of the embankment, which has recently been covered with fresh soil and hasn’t grown firm with grass yet, to the verge of the motorway and the hard shoulder where he weaves in a daze shouting and waving his arms at passing cars, and nearly hit by several of them.

It is this second accident rather than the crash itself which clinches the situation, because Maitland doesn’t see a sports car hurtling along the flyover towards him until too late, the car swerves and hits one of the wooden barriers which whiplashes brutally against his legs, hurling Maitland back down the earth embankment. It is this, second accident, which seals his fate.

Because when he comes to several hours later, Maitland discovers his thigh and hip are so badly injured that he can barely walk and, when he slowly painfully drags himself back to the earth embankment, he finds it is too loose and soft and friable – and he is now to weak – for him to climb up it. He tries repeatedly but only gets half way up then slips and tumbles back down, eventually giving up the effort.

The island

Maitland’s thigh and hip have been badly damaged by the impact of the wooden barrier. The Jag is among a band of other wrecked and derelict cars in the long grass. Maitland makes a crutch and hobbles around the grassy space and makes a discovery – there is no other way off this patch of abandoned waste land: he is trapped on this ‘island’.

The island is a long thin V shape, with the unclimbable embankment along one side; a sheer concrete wall leading up to another motorway which curves round to join the one he was driving along on the second side; and a tough ten-feet-tall wire mesh fence on the third side. At least I think that’s right. To be honest I found Ballard’s descriptions of the island a bit confusing and sometimes contradictory. Here’s the longest and clearest description:

Shielding his eyes from the sunlight, Maitland saw that he had crashed into a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the wasteground between three converging motorway routes.

The apex of the island pointed towards the west and the declining sun, whose warm light lay over the distant television studios at White City.

The base was formed by the southbound overpass that swept past seventy feet above the ground. Supported on massive concrete pillars, its six lanes of traffic were sealed from view by the corrugated metal splash-guards installed to protect the vehicles below.

Behind Maitland was the northern wall of the island, the thirty-feet-high embankment of the westbound motorway from which he had crashed.

Facing him, and forming the southern boundary, was the steep embankment of the three-lane feeder road which looped in a north-westerly circuit below the overpass and joined the motorway at the apex of the island. Although no more than a hundred yards away, this freshly grassed slope seemed hidden behind the overheated light of the island, by the wild grass, abandoned cars and builder’s equipment. Traffic moved along the westbound lanes of the feeder road, but the metal crash barriers screened the island from the drivers. The high masts of three route indicators rose from concrete caissons built into the shoulder of the road.

As I read on, I wondered if the story refers to an actual physical location, or is imaginary. Here’s a piece from the Ballardian magazine where writer Mike Bonsall suggests a plausible location for the island, in a long narrow strip of grass running south from the raised roundabout junction of the Westway and the A3220, not far from Latimer Road tube station.

The location and rough shape seem plausible, but every photo of it which Bonsall has taken seems wildly unlike the place Ballard describes. It looks bland and flat and lacks the prison-like walls which Ballard describes. It looks like you could just stroll across the road from Bonsall’s ‘island’. All of which leads to the conclude that Ballard’s ‘concrete island’ is very much an island of the mind.

I read this book some time in the 1980s and retained the impression that it really was a ‘concrete’ island. I had completely forgotten that there’s a lot more to it than that. For a start it’s big enough for him to get lost in. Over the next few days, he discovers that at one end are the ruined walls and foundations of Victorian houses. In the middle are a number of bomb shelters with steps down into them hidden by nettles and long grass. At one point there’s an overgrown graveyard, with references made to the tombstones. And believe it or not there’s the ruins of a small fleapit cinema, with a ticket booth and the shape of the crescent of seats. And somewhere in the centre the array rusting cars which he calls ‘the wreckers’ yard’.

In the description above, Ballard claims it is only 200 yards long, but Maitland’s subsequent adventures make it feel more like a village than the concrete island of the title.

All of this is overgrown by long swaying grass and castles of wild nettles, lush greenery which leads Maitland, as he develops a fever, and becomes dehydrated, to really think of it as an ‘island’.

Fever

Because that’s what happens: fever from his injuries overtakes him. There’s some wine in the boot of the jag but that just dehydrates him more. After a night and a day on the island he is in bad shape and goes steadily downhill from there. He loses weight, he is starving, he begins to hallucinate. The novel charts his descent not only into physical collapse, but this is accompanied by a wonderful description of his mind decaying, starting off lucid and determined to escape, and then charting his slow lapse into drunkenness (when he drinks a bottle of wine in shock), delirium, dehydration. After several days with no food and little to drink except rainwater, he is in serious psychological trouble.

Maitland’s descent is marked by a series of incident:

  • initial accident at 3pm
  • hit by sports car and crash barrier about 4pm
  • wakes at 1.45 having lain unconscious at the bottom of the embankment, trousers and shirt ripped
  • drinks a bottle of wine to damp the pain
  • wakes at 8am the next morning feeling terrible
  • makes a crutch from the rusted exhaust of one of the other derelict cars
  • reflects that he is marooned like Robinson Crusoe
  • dehydrated, he rips open the windscreen wiper reservoir of the Jag and greedily drinks the water
  • explores the perimeter of the island, realising he’ll never cut through or climb the high wire fence
  • back at the Jag he tries to clean his grazed hands and wounded hip an legs with cologne and rags
  • there’s a brief rainstorm and he positions the bonnet of one of the ruined cars to create a funnel channeling rainwater so he can drink it
  • strips off ruined clothes and changes into dress shirt he keeps in the boot and drinks another bottle of wine
  • fever: time passes; he dozes, comes round
  • dusk falls; a motorist chucks a cigarette from a car whizzing along the motorway and it occurs to Maitland to set the car alight
  • he does this, creating a leak in the fuel tank and using the cigarette lighter to start it – but the blaze is not like the movies, surprisingly brief and only succeeds in gutting his car
  • 10pm on the second day and a passing motorist chucks a half eaten chicken sandwich out his window which tumbles down the embankment; ravenous, Maitland chomps it down, dirt and all; he sleeps till dawn
  • dawn of the second day: Maitland vomits and is feverish; he sees an old man walking a motorbike along the hard shoulder and instead of shouting to him, becomes incoherently terrified that it is a horrific implement of torture and the old man is coming to chain him to it, so he hides
  • he stumbles across to the supporting wall of the other flyover, the one curving into the one he crashed off, and uses the charcoal off the burnt spark plugs to try and write a message big enough for passing motorists to see: HELP INJURED DRIVE CALL POLICE
  • he realises there’s a sheet of greasy newspaper nearby and excitedly reaches for it; sure enough it has a few cold soggy chips attached to it which he wolfs down
  • it starts to rain and he sets off hobbling with the use of the exhaust pipe-crutch back to the Jag but gets lost and finds amid the nettles, an entrance to some kind of mouldy basement where he holes up during the shower; when he emerges he sees the big Help message he’s written on the motorway wall has been erased

And so it goes on in the same vein, with Maitland struggling to even walk, struggling to keep a sense of purpose, experiencing lightheadedness due to hunger, dehydration and the recurrent fevers caused by the severe injuries to his hip and thigh, which sweep over him, making him vomit, pass out, come to with no memory of where he is and, increasingly, who he is.

Jane and Proctor

On the third day Maitland discovers the island already has two inhabitants, the fifty-year-old mental case, Proctor:

The man was about fifty years old, plainly a mental defective of some kind, his low forehead blunted by a lifetime of uncertainty. His puckered face had the expression of a puzzled child, as if whatever limited intelligence he had been born with had never developed beyond his adolescence. All the stresses of a hard life had combined to produce this aged defective, knocked about by a race of unkind and indifferent adults but still clinging to his innocent faith in a simple world. Ridges of silver scar tissue marked his cheeks and eye-brows, almost joining across the depressed bridge of his nose, a blob of amorphous cartilage that needed endless attention. He wiped it with his strong hand, examining the phlegm in the paraffin light. Though clumsy, his body still had a certain power and athletic poise. As he swayed from side to side on his small feet Maitland saw that he moved with the marred grace of an acrobat or punch-drunk sparring partner who had gone down the hard way.

And a young woman with red hair wearing a combat jacket, Jane Sheppard.

Lit by the paraffin lamp behind her, her red hair glowed like a wild sun in the shabby room, shafts of light cutting through the home-set waves that rose above her high forehead.She was about twenty, with an angular, sharp-witted face and strong jaw. She was good-looking in an almost wilfully tatty way.

He blunders into a fight with Proctor and Jane rescues him. Maitland recovers consciousness on her bed in the bunker she’s sort of decorated in the basement of the derelict cinema. It’s lined with posters of Charlie Manson and Black Power. She’s a drop-out from a troubled middle-class family. She is spiky but vulnerable. After a few days we realise she is a hooker and puts on shiny clothes and stilletos to go get business. She returns with groceries from a local shop. Maitland realises she knows a way out and yet… by this stage… he is in such a strange zone that he doesn’t ask her… not just yet, anyway… sometime…. not yet.

The rest of this very short novel charts the slowly changing relationships between these three, as they play off one another. By about page 100 of the 126-page-long version I have Maitland realises that he can dominate them both, and sets about managing Proctor with a combination of ‘presents from his car, and strategic cuffs and blows.

Maitland realises that Proctor actually wants to be mastered and controlled, he offers up his scar for whipping, it confirms his self-image as a humiliated loser. In what I suppose was a shocking scene for 1974 Maitland asserts his authority when Proctor is lying drunk on the grass after drinking one of Maitland’s last bottles of wine, by undoing  his flies and urinating all over the mental defective. From now on, he is boss.

Jane watches him do it, and the gesture asserts control over her, too, although only intermittent, and subject to her own unpredictable mood swings.

And reflecting on his urge to humiliate both of these outcasts, Maitland can’t help reflecting that he, too, is not the great white success he likes to think. His marriage with Catherine was on the rocks, he wasn’t happy in his work. Is Jane right when she suggests that his arrival on the island wasn’t an accident: that at some deep unconscious level, Maitland wanted to crash?

‘Oh, come on… why don’t you straighten your life out? You’ve got a hundred times more hang-ups. Your wife, this woman doctor – you were on an island long, before you crashed here.’

The novel moves quickly towards a harsh climax. A repair truck parks on the hard shoulder of the overpass with ropes and a workman’s cradle hanging down. Proctor climbs up in it to impress Maitland with his acrobatic abilities. But the truck pulls off unexpectedly and Proctor becomes entangled in the ropes and is swept backwards, helplessly, into a vast concrete stanchion where his body is smashed and he is garrotted, the ropes snapping and dropping his body to the ground as the truck carries on regardless.

Cut to Jane and Maitland by Proctor’s broken body. Sobered, Jane announces she is leaving the island. She says she’ll phone for help, she’ll get the police and an ambulance, hey can be there in half an hour. But Maitland insists she doesn’t, insists she leave him be. He wants to leave, ‘but in his own way’, when he’s ready, and not before.

Janes packs a shabby suitcase and heaves it up the embankment – she has no secret way out, she just has two functioning legs, unlike the cripple Maitland. After she’s gone he is happy. He spends hours of back-breaking labour digging a grave for Proctor in the old cemetery, drags him over to it and buries him.

Now the island is finally his without any interference. He’ll leave. Of course, he’ll leave. When he’s good and ready. In his own time…

Style

Losing rationality Only as Maitland began his mental collapse, did I realise the significance of the opening lines. I had liked them because I like factual accuracy…

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.

But then I realised Ballard is doing something canny: the book opens with the height of factual, police evidence-level pedantic precision. Clarity and lucidity and accuracy. Because these are the very things which the protagonist proceeds to slowly loses as he descends into into fever dreams and increasingly weird psychic states.

The grass There’s an appealing thread running through the book, which is the importance of the grass. As Maitland goes out of his mind he begins to think the long grass on the island is talking to him, encouraging him, urging him on, and he starts talking back to the grass, sharing his plans with it.

The grass lashed at his feet, as if angry that Maitland still wished to leave its green embrace. Laughing at the grass, Maitland patted it reassuringly with his free hand as he hobbled along, stroking the seething stems that caressed his waist.

I’m not being too cute when I say that the grass was my favourite character in the book, preferable to the Caliban-clumsiness of Proctor, and to the unhappy mood changes of neurotic Jane who – alas and alack – inevitably eventually gets her kit off and has sex with Maitland on her smelly mattress in the basement of the ruined cinema. That eventuality had a thumping inevitability, whereas the character of the grass, that’s not something you read every day.

The grass seethed and whirled around him, as if sections of this wilderness were speaking to each other… The grass flashed with an electric light, encircling his thighs and calves. The wet leaves wound across his skin, as if reluctant to release him…

No point in going back to the car, he told himself.
The grass seethed around him in the light wind, speaking its agreement.
‘Explore the island now – drink the wine later.’
The grass rustled excitedly, parting in circular waves, beckoning him into its spirals.

Yes, you can make a strong case for the grass being the most sympathetic character in the book.

Melodrama

Having just read the short story collection Vermilion Sands my head was reverberating from Ballard’s extravagant over-use of Edgar Allen Poe-level over-the-top Gothic terminology – everything in Vermilion Sands is a nightmare, a living hell, demented and insane.

Regrettably, a little of that hysterical tones seeps into what is, for the most part, the much sober style of the story.

  • He lurched into the roadway again, blocking the outer lane and waving his briefcase like a demented race-track official
  • When she came into the room she turned up the lamp and glared down drunkenly at Maitland. Her wild hair flamed around her in the vivid light like a demented sun
  • By some nightmare logic he was convinced that the old man was coming for him,
  • He began to tell the young woman about his crash, eager to fix his nightmare ordeal in someone else’s mind before it vanished

There’s a particularly over-ripe moment when it occurs to Maitland that his plight, marooned in this no-mans’-land has an improbably vast symbolism.

Catherine would be sleeping quietly in her white bedroom, a bar of moonlight across her pale throat. In fact, the whole city was now asleep, part of an immense unconscious Europe, while he himself crawled about on a forgotten traffic island like the nightmare of this slumbering continent.

Pretty over-ripe – although, to be fair, Maitland is feverishly hallucinating at the time

Ballard is capable of thinking things nobody else had ever thought, and often framing it in wonderfully bizarre and inventive purple prose. But at his most flaccid, he is also capable of a kind of second-hand bombast which suddenly makes you sit up and ask yourself: ‘Actually, is this brilliant or… is it over-the-top rubbish?’

Conclusion

It’s a brilliant, vivid and haunting novella.

It feels a long, long way from the trilogy of florid disaster novels in the early 1960s or from the jewelled prose of Vermilion Sands and the more lush and decadent of his many short stories, a long way from the dead astronauts and drained swimming pools of the desert resorts.

It’s West London in 1973 – and yet it is a vivid, a disturbingly super-vivid, picture of how quickly the most successful, articulate, intelligent and rational people in our culture can be reduced by a relatively minor twist of fate to abject squalor and mental collapse.

It feels astringent and modern and is at its most effective when, in prose terms, it is most restrained.

After the next book, High Rise, was published in 1975, it became possible to see the three novels – Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975) – closely linked as they are by publication date and subject matter – as a trilogy, and they’ve come to be referred to as the ‘urban disaster’ trilogy.

Original covers of Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975)

High-minded critics may well laud Ballard’s avant-garde experimentalism and analyse his post-modern fictional strategies and his prophetic insights into the post-modern condition – but it’s funny to realise that, at the time, his publishers still marketed his books with images of bare boobs and tough guys.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing @ the Barbican Gallery

To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, potentially unattainable…

This is a major retrospective of one of the best known documentary photographers of the 20th century, the American Dorothea Lange. It brings together some 300 objects – hundreds of vintage prints and original book publications through to ephemera, field notes, letters, magazines and books in which her photos featured.

It also includes a documentary film interview with her made towards the end of her life in which she explains her ideas and motivations.

Rarely has an artist or photographer been so overshadowed by one work, Lange’s super-famous portrait of a Migrant Mother which has come to symbolise the suffering of America’s Mid-Western farmers in the Great depression of the 1930s – forced to abandon their land due to bank foreclosures and catastrophic environmental collapse.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But the exhibition goes out of its way to present this period of Lange’s work in the broader, and more varied context of her entire career.

The show proceeds in straightforward chronological order, from her earliest professional photos of 1919 through to her last project in 1957.

Room 1 Portrait studio

In 1919 Lange set up a portrait studio in San Francisco, which she ran until 1935. The studio became a meeting place for San Francisco’s creative community, including bohemian and artist friends such as Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke.

There’s a portrait of photographer Roi Partridge, and of painter Maynard Dixon, Lange’s first husband and father of her two sons.

The style and mood are soft focus with plenty of self-consciously artistic poses from artists, writers, poets and musicians – people like the founder of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola. There’s a misty, soft focus, aesthetic feel to most of them, like the wonderfully romantic Woman in a black hat, and a beautifully caught mother turning away from the camera. The baby is rather rubicund but the mother’s pose has the self-conscious (and slender) grace of a Virginia Woolf.

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

This is bourgeois, arty Lange – before she was ‘woke’.

Rooms 2, 3, and 4 – The Great Depression and the Farm Security Administration

In the early 1930s Lange began to notice homeless men hanging round on the San Francisco streets. Along with everyone else she watched as this trickle turned into a flood of homeless families, farmers uprooted from the Mid-Western states by crop failures caused by drought and over-farming and exacerbated by bank foreclosures by banks who were themselves fighting off bankruptcy. Altogether some 300,000 farmers and their families were forced to head West in the hope of getting work as casual labourers in California.

This, and the accompanying political uproar it caused, woke Lange from her aesthetic slumber and gave her a subject. She took her camera out onto the street and was soon snapping demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

This section of the exhibition displays some hundred photos she took of these subjects, as well as displaying some of the magazines they were shown in, alongside letters and diaries of her travels into the Dustbowl and among the temporary encampments set up by these poverty-stricken migrants all across southern California.

Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration work (1935–1939) to publicise the problem in a range of government-sponsored publications. By association she was supporting the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to create a New Deal and support the farmers. She worked alongside other notable photographers, including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

The photos show a wide range of subject matter including:

  • urban poverty in San Francisco
  • tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms
  • mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas
  • the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West
  • the awful conditions of migrant workers and camps across California

Traveling for many months at a time and working in the field, Lange collaborated with a prominent social economist and expert in farm labour, Paul Schuster Taylor, who became her second husband. With him she published the seminal photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939. A copy of the book and associated letters and diaries are on display here.

Room 3 Migrant Mother

There’s an entire room devoted to the iconic Migrant Mother photo, rather as there used to be a room at the National Gallery devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks. And after all the two images have a lot in common, being images of a mother and baby.

But what justifies giving it a room of its own is the backstory to the photo. Driving along, Lange saw a sign to a pea-picking camp, took a detour to visit it, wandered round, saw this particularly wretched mother and her swarming infants in a truly pitiful make-do shelter, and asked permission to photograph her.

Because the final version is so iconic it’s lost a lot of its power to shock. The photos she took in the run-up to the final version were – to me at any rate – completely unfamiliar and their unfamiliarity recaptures that sense of squalor and abandonment. It’s just a makeshift tent in a crappy bit of scrubland, sheltering children in rags with nothing to eat. There’s nothing epic or artistic about it. It is pure misery.

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Architecture

It’s possible to become a little overloaded with Lange’s powerful images of the poor trudging along streets carrying all their earthly possessions in a blanket, or dirty men hanging round street corners begging for work.

The exhibition points out that Lange also had an eye for the stark architecture of the Mid-West. She shot buildings in a classic, square-on way which gives them a striking monumentality.

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

There’s also a section which focuses on Lange’s interest in parts of the body. Photos of people’s arms, or legs, or torsos, capturing the arrangement of limbs in a self-conscious, posed, artistic way. The curators speculate that this may have been something to do with the fact that Lange had polio when she was seven, which left her right leg and foot noticeably weakened.

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Later in life Lange came to think that having to overcome such a physical trauma at such an early age had shaped her personality, her ambition, her refusal to quit.

It was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.

Maybe her own personal struggle against illness predisposed her to be interested in the underdog?

Room 6 Japanese American internment

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the U.S. Government decided to round up and intern all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. Even at the time many people thought this was a mistake and it has gone on to become a well-known radical cause célèbre.

Over the next year more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the War Relocation Authority and housed in makeshift camps. Lange’s series of photos depict not only the Japanese-Americans themselves, but the architecture and infrastructure of the camps. There are bleak signs and posters attacking the Japanese, or in which patriotic Americans announced their loyalty.

It is the first time this series of works has been shown outside the US and Canada.

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Room 7 California shipyards

As America swung into full wartime production mode, all aspects of agriculture and industry across Lange’s native California were called on to play their part. The shipyards at Richmond, California became an important centre for producing naval vessels. Along with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams, Lange documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944.

The town experienced an explosive increase in population numbers and business of the endlessly changing shifts of shipyard workers. To quote the wall label, Lange was ‘drawn to images that transgressed accepted attitudes towards gender and race’ i.e. women and blacks.

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

After the rooms full of photos of begging farmers, of the wrongfully interned Japanese, and of black and woman shipyard workers, you have got a good feel for the way Lange had made herself a portrayer of the underdog, a chronicler of society’s victims or defiers of conventional values.

She faced a problem, then, after the war, when America headed into a prolonged period of high employment and affluence. The wall label tells us that Lange disapproved of the arrival of mass consumer culture, cheap homes, a radio and then a TV, a fridge and an affordable car for everyone.

To me, it seems that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t produce tear-jerking images of utter poverty and wretchedness, begging the government for something to be done – and then be upset when people finally find work, employment, and can afford somewhere decent to live, a house, a car.

It seemed to me that Lange, by now a familiar figure on the Left, had settled into a posture of permanent opposition, even when Americans had never had it so good.

Room 9 Public defender

This comes over in the project she embarked on in 1955. California had instituted a new system of public defenders to represent the poorest plaintiffs in court, and Lange spent six weeks shadowing one of these new public defenders, Martin Pulich.

From the jaws of the most affluent nation on earth, Lange was able to pull a series of photos which still managed to focus on poverty, bad education and the sorry squalor of the criminal classes.

She has such a great eye. The courtroom shots are all powerfully composed. There are classic shots of a grim-faced judge sitting under an American flag, of Pulich standing next to a sequence of sorry, shame-faced defendants, of the defendants’ wives or girlfriends slumped in anguish in the corridors outside the court. Of prison vans and prison cells.

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California (1955) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California, 1955 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

In the era when more Americans had better paid jobs than ever before, bought their own houses and cars, and their kids were cruising round listening to Elvis on the radio, Lange was exploring the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland.

I guess affluence and happiness are just such boring subjects for artists. There is an in-built bias in modern (post-Great War) art, towards always focusing in on the underdog, the downtrodden, the pitiful and the outcast. The many millions who have great jobs, drive big cars, have barbeques with family at the weekend? Not seen so often in ‘modern’ art, film or photos.

Room 10 Death of a valley

In 1956 Lange heard about a town in California that was going to be destroyed by the construction of a dam.

Death of a Valley (1956–57) was the series of photos she made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones, to document the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek.

The pair set out to capture the traditional rhythms of rural life in spring and summer – and then to document the uprooting of the town, the literal carting away of many of the wooden houses and the digging up of the dead to be reburied elsewhere, before the developers moved in with their giant earthworking machines and the remaining buildings were burnt to the ground.

Her depiction of cowboy hat-wearing old-timers dressed in dungarees in village stores are classic evocations of small-town California life. More vocative shots of rugged, individual people.

What also struck me about this sequence was that Lange was rarely good with pure landscapes. The few shots of the valley, as a whole,, on its own, are flat. Whenever people enter the frame, the photos jump to life.

These photos haven’t, apparently, been displayed or published since the 1960s.

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange (1957) © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange, 1957 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Room 11 Ireland

In 1954 Lange made the only trip she ever made outside the USA, to Ireland. She spent six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, capturing the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis.

Once again she demonstrates her terrific eye for spotting immensely characterful people and capturing them in richly evocative black and white photographs.

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But also, this series clinched for me the feeling that, at some point, Lange stopped portraying the world, the actual world – the big wide world of the Cold War and supersonic jets and colour TVs and cars with big fins pulling into diners where Elvis is blaring out of the jukebox.

Her black-and-white vision of the underdog, forged in the Great Depression, was only a part of American culture, even back then – and became a slenderer, almost endangered vision of outsiderness, as the majority of America headed confidently into an era of unprecedented affluence.

It seems to me wholly characteristic that she had to go abroad, leaving America altogether, to seek out the kind of peasant ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’ and the ‘dignity of labour’ and so on, which she was temperamentally attracted to but was ceasing to exist in the land of I Love Lucy and the drive-in movie.

Lange’s politics

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, says:

Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today.

Well, yes and no. There isn’t currently, in 2018, a great collapse in American agriculture forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to migrate to the coast. There isn’t a world war in which people from the enemy nation are being interned in mass camps. Ireland is no longer a nation of sturdy peasants riding carts to market, but of financial over-reach and Catholic paedophilia.

If Alison means that Lange depicted poverty, well, when in human history hasn’t there been grinding poverty somewhere in the world? And when haven’t there been moralists, from Goya to Dickens, who have felt it their duty to record poverty and squalor?

1. This is a major overview of a really important photographer, showing how she brought an acute eye for the human, for human character, for the pathos of the human condition, to a wide range of embattled situations.

2. But it also made this visitor, at any rate, think about the nature of oppositional artists who thrive by focusing on the downtrodden, on society’s losers. It made me ponder whether this choice of subject matter represents a political act – in the sense that setting up a political party, making speeches, writing manifestos and hammering out party platforms is a political act – or whether it is more of a temperamental and artistic choice, a preferred subject matter – the subject matter which brings out the best in an artist and which they therefore learn to focus on it, as Stubbs specialised in horses or Bacon on screaming popes.

In other words, whether what Alison describes as ‘politics’ isn’t really, in fact, just a type of style.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

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