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Day Sleeper: Reviewed by George Slade

Book Review Day Sleeper Photographs by Dorothea Lange. Edited by Sam Contis. Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson In this book Sam Contis presents a new window onto the work of the iconic American photographer Dorothea Lange. Drawing from Lange’s extensive archive, Contis constructs a fragmented, unfamiliar world centred around the figure of the day sleeper – at once a symbol of respite and oblivion.
Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.
Day Sleeper
Photographs by Dorothea Lange
Edited by Sam Contis

Mack, London, UK, 2020. Unpaged, 6¾x9½".

As Hamlet, weighing the misfortune of his life against the temptations of death, would say, “Aye, there’s the rub.” Sleeping, even couched in its extreme form as death, begets dreaming, and that’s a space where the unconscious loses control. “Perchance to dream” might be an epigram for Day Sleeper, for the question of dreams may be central to an understanding of this subtle, sensed yet silent dialogue between two Californians born three generations apart.

A “day sleeper” isn’t necessarily someone taking a siesta or a restorative catnap. Some people work at night and are thus asleep during the day while others are up and about. A handmade sign, like that tacked to the door of unit 1D in the image on page 139, is a request for silence in consideration for a graveyard shift worker, engaged at that moment in the fractious, sometimes restorative work of dreams.

Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.

Dreams abound in Lange’s work; one might say that the entire FSA photographic project revolves around dreams, the aspirations for recovery and security amid the Depression’s most terrible socio-economic circumstances. With her background as a successful studio portraitist in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lange had a talent for conveying empathetic depictions of individuals, contrasting, for example, Walker Evans’ forensic headshots of tenant farmers, sunlit against rough planks.

Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.
Appreciating the dreams of others is, by nature, a speculative undertaking. Contis, for her part, forges a relationship with Lange that parallels Lange’s relationship with her subjects, both the sleeping and the fretfully awake. We — readers, Contis, Lange — project ourselves into the unconscious machinations of another. And we, the viewers of this book, encounter another space of dreams, one constructed by astute designers and the photographer-cum-philosopher/visionary Contis. Amidst Lange’s streaming midtones, for instance, an occasional white/black two-page spread intervenes, as though recalibrating a white balance or reasserting the optical extremes of the light/dark spectrum.

One might be forgiven for a first take on Day Sleeper that suggests Contis’ own contemporary photographs interwoven with Lange’s. Many of the Lange images are unfamiliar, and many have a crisp, ethereal modernity that has characterized Yale’s Graduate Photography Program during the last three decades. Contis is among its recent alums. (Note that Contis pursued such an authorship-confounding modus operandi in her earlier book Deep Springs (Mack, 2017); in that project, the leap of time between original photographs and her own was a century.)

Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.

Read this book for its manifest visual pleasures. Contemplate its symbolism, weigh its signs, both those depicted within Lange’s photographs and those built around them as the book object narrative. Grasp and dwell in its subtext of daydreams and nightmares. (Note the zombie-like arms floating out of darkness on page 29 and the grotesquely crucified bird spread across 36 and 37.)

Recall that Lange, like the anonymous day sleeper, famously had a sign on the door of her darkened workspace. In her case, more verbose — a quote from the 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon which served as a kind of epigrammatic mission statement for her. Bacon wrote: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” While Hamlet fretted over the imagined nobility of suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” Lange, in Contis’ eloquent appreciation, utilized photography to inscribe visions of clarity, integrity, and humane purpose. What did beleaguered 1930s Americans dream of harvesting, besides hope?

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Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.
Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.
Day Sleeper. By Dorothea Lange & Sam Contis.
George Slade, aka re:photographica, is a writer and photography historian based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. He is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization TC Photo.

Image c/o Randall Slavin