In the nineteen-thirties, when Dorothea Lange crisscrossed the country taking photographs of migrants displaced by the Depression, it was the federal government that sent her. F.D.R.’s New Deal Administration had tasked Lange and the other photographers of the Farm Security Administration with showing America to itself in a moment of epic duress. Their more practical purpose was to build support for government aid to people—rural Americans struggling on dust-choked farms or forced out on the road. Roy Stryker, the economics professor put in charge of the F.S.A.’s documentary project, recalled, years later, how important it was for the photographers, too. It was a salutary thing, for America “to see itself with problems, instead of everything easy. All of a sudden there’s cohesiveness, they’re pulled together suddenly because they have to—they’re like cattle suddenly attacked by the wolves, the cows all circle around and the calves all come to the middle. We all have to face that. And I think that’s what happened. Life isn’t all a series of pools and television sets. My God, there’s some trouble in the world.”
Since 2017, the photographer Danna Singer has been making pictures of people staying—often living—in motels, harrowed by their own bouts with the world’s troubles. Among the places she’s travelled, from her home in Philadelphia, are Galveston, Texas; Beatty, Nevada; Laramie, Wyoming; Florida City, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; and Hammonton, New Jersey. (She tried Las Vegas, but had a harder time there getting people to trust her.) Some of the subjects she photographs are working-poor families; some are people who have nowhere else to go because they are addicted to opioids or meth and cut off from any support system; some are sex workers, or motel staff, or the occasional travellers lucky enough to be just passing through. Singer stays in the motels for a few days herself, picking places where a room costs sixty-five dollars a night or less, which fits both her budget and her notion for the project. She meets her fellow-guests in the outdoor hallways or around the small pools that older, courtyard-style motels still often boast. Sometimes she just knocks on doors.
Singer counts the F.S.A. photographers among her influences, but, unlike them, she can’t operate on the premise that her unflinching gaze will lead to a social investment in bettering the lives of the people she photographs. Still, her motel picture reminded me of something Stryker said about how he trusted the humane good judgment of his photographers: “The greatest thing that I can say is that at no time, [in] no picture that I have any recollection of did any photographer try to be cute, to ridicule, to take advantage, to in any way show anything that didn’t show respect for the person he was having the camera on.”
Singer’s pictures manage to combine the offhand intimacy of family snapshots with the dignified, staged formality of portrait painting. In one photo, two teen-age girls sit on the curb in a motel parking lot, next to a scruffy patch of grass. Behind them is a sky-blue car, a Buick, maybe from the early eighties. With its big, American lines, it seems to evoke an even earlier era of travel, when motels still held the sparkle and kick of the open road, and most of the families staying in them probably weren’t sheltering there as a last refuge. The blue of the car is the same shade as one of the girls’ eyes. The pair have been shopping at the convenience store, and now they’re primping together; the dark-haired girl solemnly adjusts the clasp on her blonde friend’s necklace. They wear matching chokers. You can tell that they are the kind of friends who move through the world around them, however harsh, in a bubble blown out of stubborn admiration for each other.
Singer’s motel portraits are in color, shot with a DSLR camera, set on a tripod, and using a slightly wide-angle 35-mm. lens. That works well for groupings like the one in which two boy-band-cute adolescents, both freshly combed and painstakingly decked out in skater wear, sprawl on chairs dragged outside of their motel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Next to them, sitting cross-legged on the ground, body in profile but face turned toward the viewer like the model in “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” is the boys’ mother. Each one looks a little alienated from the other, an effect enhanced by the patch reading “self-made” that one of the boys is sporting. But something about the bright splashes of red and blue each wears—the fire-engine-red sneakers on one boy echoing his mom’s tank top—seem to suggest a thick undercurrent of affinity. Singer told me that the mother, Shilo, who was recovering from cancer, was sharing a room with her sons, Darren and Austin, and her boyfriend while they waited for an apartment to become available.