Dorothea Lange Exhibit
See her historic photographs at Oakland Museum of California.
Dorothea Lange did not intend to be an activist. But when she witnessed the extreme deprivations caused by the Great Depression, she found her calling.
“I was sort of aware that there was a very large world out there that I had not entered too well, and I decided I’d better,” she said in a 1964 oral history conducted by the Smithsonian Institution. “I never had any sense [of] making a career out of it.”
Jolted into action by this wake-up call, Lange embarked on a long and influential career as a documentary photographer, creating a series of unforgettable images that speak to issues of class, race, justice, and poverty. Now, a new exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California looks at Lange’s accomplishments through a fresh lens: Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing explores how the photographer’s iconic images are a persuasive form of political activism.
The museum—which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of its acquisition of Lange’s vast personal archive of 25,000 negatives, 6,000 prints, and more—is exhibiting photographs from all stages of Lange’s career, as well as memorabilia, field notes, and other artifacts. Yet the show is no dusty trip through history: As Politics of Seeing makes poignantly clear, the issues Lange covered some 80 years ago have striking relevance to those the country faces today. In fact, the show also features works by three contemporary photographers who carry on Lange’s legacy by documenting subjects such as immigration and gentrification.
Born in New Jersey to second-generation German immigrants, Lange began her career apprenticing in several New York photography studios. She came to San Francisco in 1918 and found work as a portrait photographer, eventually settling in Berkeley, which became her home for the rest of her life. She moved in the Bay Area’s edgy bohemian circles, socializing with leading artists, social activists, and economists (one of whom, UC Berkeley Professor Paul S. Taylor, became her traveling companion, collaborator, and second husband).
As the Great Depression unfolded, Lange felt compelled to do something about the crisis, and the camera was her medium of choice. First shooting breadlines and labor demonstrations in San Francisco, Lange soon began documenting the lives of migrant agricultural workers across the country at the behest of the federal Farm Security Administration. Always approaching her subjects with empathy and compassion, Lange said her photographs were collaborations between herself and the people she encountered, giving them dignity despite their often-abject conditions. Lange’s best-known photo, Migrant Mother, a searing portrait of a hungry and despairing 32-year-old farm worker and her children, is one of the most frequently reproduced images in modern photography for this reason.
After Lange made her name through her Depression-era photography, she went on to create other significant bodies of work, notably during World War II, when she photographed Japanese Americans who were interned as a result of the War Relocation Authority. “Violently opposed to the incarceration, she instinctively made photographs that revealed the tragic and dehumanizing consequences of the government’s policy,” says OMCA’s Curator of Photography and Visual Culture, Drew Johnson, who organized the exhibition. Because of her political views, Johnson says, Lange was constantly shadowed by guards as she worked, and most of her photographs were impounded during the war.
Still, Lange’s commitment to social justice never waned. In the 1950s, she produced a series of photo essays, including what’s known as the Public Defender series, in which she documented the actions of the Alameda County Public Defender’s office. She continued working prolifically until her death in 1965. A few months later, New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented a comprehensive retrospective of her work.
Of course, the immediate impact these images had on audiences cannot be overstated, and it has not diminished over time. It is very difficult to look at Lange’s work without having a visceral reaction, and this was Lange’s intent, says Johnson. “Her pictures were designed to provoke social and political change,” he notes, “which,
in a sense, is a form of activism.”
Lange was keenly aware that photography—in the right artist’s hands—can have a powerful urgency. “One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind,” she said. Fortunately for us, her vision endures.
Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing May 13–August 13
Oakland Museum of California
1000 Oak St., Oakland, museumca.org