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.”

“ C.R.,” Florida City, Florida, 2019.

体育投注平台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.

“Necklace,” Hammonton, New Jersey, 2017.

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.”

“Lloyd,” Beatty, Nevada, 2019.

体育投注平台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.

“Family,” Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2019.

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.

“Window,” Florida City, Florida, 2019.

Though Singer’s photos can be coolly appraising, they do not feel like the work of a detached outsider. Her previous series, “If It Rained an Ocean,” focussed on her own working-class family and extended friend group in the town she grew up in, Toms River, New Jersey. Many of Singer’s subjects struggled with addiction, mental-health challenges, and chronic money woes. Two of her sisters lived in campers on their parents’ property for a while after being displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Singer first picked up a camera when she was sixteen and attending what she once described as “the alternate high school for kids who would rather light shopping carts on fire than sit in a classroom considering options that we knew were for people other than ourselves.” When she was in her late thirties, she made it to the Pratt Institute, for a B.F.A., and later to Yale, where she studied with the photographer Gregory Crewdson, for an M.F.A., which she earned when she was forty-six. Singer was a single mother to two boys, who are now grown, and, as she told me, “We certainly ate from the food bank” at times. She also struggled with substance abuse. A boyfriend’s death in a drunk-driving accident shook her enough to help her get and stay sober.

“Brittney,” Denver, Colorado, 2019.

体育投注平台Singer’s background has predisposed her to be interested in what sociologists call “the hidden injuries of class”—not just the obvious deprivations but the ways they worm their way into the deepest sense of self. She told me, “I think that, ultimately, really at the heart of my work is this idea of, it’s not just that people don’t have money, it’s that they don’t see they’re worth it. And how do you get out of that mind-set?”

“Room 33, Laramie,” Wyoming, 2019.
“Cousins,” Phoenix, Arizona, 2019.
“Linda,” Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2019.

For the motel series, she hung out, ate meals, and gave rides to some of the people whose portraits she took. There has been only one time so far when she felt uneasy enough in the presence of a subject to voluntarily decamp. (On another occasion, a motel manager asked her to leave for violating a house rule—intended to discourage sex work and drug-dealing—against visiting other guests in their rooms.) Singer sends the photographs to her subjects if they’ve agreed to share contact information with her, and sometimes she hears back, but it can be difficult to keep track of motel-dwellers. I asked if she had been thinking about how they were faring in the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m worried,” she said. “These are the most vulnerable populations. They don’t have health care or insurance. And, in some cases, their immune systems are already compromised. And I’m also worried about people who are in recovery, who are out there and trying. How are they getting to meetings and stuff like that? It’s going to be really difficult. “

“Dustin,” Galveston, Texas, 2019.

Singer has been been holed up in her home in recent weeks, like many Americans who are fortunate enough to have a permanent place to live. But she’s still hoping to continue the project, expanding her geographic range. “I wish I could say that it’s an act of working through and coming out the other side of things,” Singer once wrote, of her work. “I cannot. I’m not in it for the resolution. I’m after the expression, the language, and satisfaction of saying something so completely without ever having said a word.”

“Ramona,” Miami, Florida, 2019.
“Poolside,” Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2019.