Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

The show unfolded chronologically and so the first images you saw were photos from Lange’s San Francisco studio. Even though Lange was only in her mid-twenties, she already had an unconventional approach to photography. These weren’t the stiffly-posed calling cards that were being turned out by London photographers at the same date. Her portrait of A mother and child (1928) shows the mother twisted away, her face obscured, her long and elegant body suggesting that of a Mannerist Madonna, with the child riding on one hip; and her picture of the dancer Nitza Vemelli (1921) is a masterpiece of soft-focus dynamism, capturing Vemelli in a moment of arrested movement. A portrait of A woman in a dark hat (1919) shows the sitter emerging from a smoky background, like a sphinx painted by Fernand Khnopff. Even more traditional kinds of images, like her portrait of Charles Duncan (1933), are remarkable, probing deeply into the sitter’s personal space and offering an amazingly intense experience of ‘character’. These creative responses to a traditional format meant that Lange was very well placed for the moment when she decided to go out on the road, taking her camera and heading east, to record the stories of those who’d been forced away from their land and homes.

Lange didn’t do this entirely on her own initiative. In December 1935, after divorcing her first husband (the painter Maynard Dixon), she married Paul Schuster Taylor, a social scientist who was equally determined to effect change. They presented some of Lange’s photographs to central government, after which she was invited to work for the newly-founded Resettlement Administration. The few camps available for economic migrants were often dusty and poorly supplied with facilities. Lange’s personal mission was to show the stories of these families, often travelling with very young children, without any idea where they would end up, as a way to advocate better provision of accommodation.

Her photographs home in on the telling detail. Even though she’s now best known for her photos of stoic country people, a selection of her city photographs were also included here. Line Up at Social Security in the early days, San Francisco (1937) shows men queuing to get financial aid; shafts of light filtering through a distant window suggest the dusty air; and, as you look at the photograph in more detail, you realise that one man, on the extreme left, is staring up and out at us. His gaze turns the photo from a piece of journalism into a brief connection with another human soul. And that’s what Lange is so good at doing. She notes city hardships – the multiple darns in a stenographer’s mended stockings in Sign of the Times, San Francisco (1934) – as easily as she turns her compassionate lens on those she meets on the road – such as the young mother in Drought refugees from Oklahoma, August 1936, a woman with five children who is breast-feeding her toddler even as Lange snaps the photo. The woman looks out, her face simultaneously pained and proud. ‘How,’ she seems to be asking, ‘did it come to this?’

Lange: Family between Dallas and Austin

Dorothea Lange, Family between Dallas and Austin, August 1936

And she’s not the only one. Lange made notes on some of her photos, like that of another mother with her three children tucked on a mattress in the back of a truck, titled Family between Dallas and Austin, August 1936. Lange writes: ‘The people have left their home and connections in South Texas and hope to reach the Arkansas Delta for work in the cotton fields. Penniless people. No food and three gallons of gas in the tank. The father is trying to repair a tire. Three children. Father says, “It’s tough, but life’s tough anyway you take it”.’ (You can spot the stoic father’s feet underneath the truck as he wrestles with the wheel.) And this is the thing which has touched so many people – Lange’s ability to capture that resilience, that pride, that unbowed determination.

Some of her sitters, despite their drastic circumstances, remain immensely stylish. A Family on the Road, Oklahoma (1938) includes an extremely elegant mother, while the Unemployed lumber worker with his wife, Oregon (1939) looks as dapper as a matinee idol. The striking Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936) shows a little girl with a wounded face, staring defiantly at the viewer. Her ferocity seems to encompass the general attitude of her world. ‘Knock me down,’ her expression says, ‘and I’ll get up again’. Not everyone is as resolute. I was hugely moved by Ditched, Stalled & Stranded, San Joaquin Valley (1936). Just look at that man’s face – the immensity of his situation; his impotence in the face of nature; his distress… it’s heartbreaking.

Lange’s most famous portrait is, of course, Migrant Mother, photographed in 1936. This is one of several photos that Lange took in the course of about ten minutes at a pea picker’s camp near Nipomo in California. The woman is Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of seven children who was facing destitution because the pea crop had failed. Lange’s notes add, ‘These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food‘. A small room devoted to this image, and others taken at the time, show how many variations Lange tried before she found the one that really worked: the timeless image of a mother determined to press on for the good of her children, even though the way ahead looks bleak. In order to get it just right, Lange painted out Thompson’s thumb, which in rare early proofs curls around the tent pole in the foreground. That means that nothing detracts from her weary gaze. It’s a superb photograph, intentionally or accidentally conjuring up images of the Madonna and Child flanked by angels. But here there is no hope; nothing. And one of the most shocking things? Realising that Thompson, a mother of seven, with her heavily lined and weathered face, was a year younger than me when that photograph was taken. People aged quickly in those days.

But Lange didn’t stop after the economy slowly began to get back to rights. She continued to home in on social issues, often in despite of her employers’ expectations. For example, in 1942 she was commissioned by the War Relocation Authority to document the resettlement of Americans of Japanese heritage, who were forcibly moved away from the West Coast in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. Lange was deeply shocked by what she saw. She didn’t see dangerous enemy aliens being removed from a militarised zone. Instead, she saw model citizens – schoolchildren; graduates; successful businessmen with nice houses; loving families – who were suddenly being driven off in ‘evacuation buses’ to regimented wooden camps with bunk houses and limited facilities.

Lange forces us to confront the vulnerability, weakness and normality of these Americans, who’ve committed no crime except that of having a Japanese ancestor. In Turlock, California, 2 May 1942, an elderly lady looks on in bewilderment as she waits for the bus. In Manzanar Relocation Center (1942), a grandfather holds his grandson on his shoulders in a moment of great tenderness. Lange shows us the teenage Kimiko Katagaki keeping an eye on her family’s luggage in Oakland (1942), her eyes closed as if in resignation. And she shows us what these families could expect when they reached the camps: barrack-like huts, separated by unpaved dusty earth. It’s a chapter of American history that I don’t think about very much – and I know perfectly well that people with German or Italian heritage were interned here in the UK as well, although I don’t know how the experiences would have compared.

For me, Lange’s career is at its most powerful in these early years. She continued to work after the Second World War, but the amelioration of conditions meant that her work was more documentary and less polemical. She records working life in the shipyards of Richmond, California, in the mid-1940s, when American entry into the war led to a flood of investment in shipping. Some of these images capture a new sense of joie de vivre, sorely needed after the previous sombre rooms. In End of Shift at Yard 1, September 1943, a girl positively dances out of the yard with her friends, looking bright and sparky in her overalls. And I was very much taken with the Woman standing in front of Richmond Cafe (c.1944), which shows a girl looking so modern that you wouldn’t be surprised to bump into her on Camden High Street. It’s moments like this which are so precious, which erase that sense of history being somehow ‘other’, and reminding us that it’s people just like us who lived and suffered through these dismal years.

The exhibition closes with Lange’s images of Californian development after the war. Here her social conscience came to the fore again. She lamented the building of huge highways and the way that progress for some inevitably meant destruction for others. A poignant series of photographs taken in 1956-57 records the final year of the town of Monticello in California, before it was demolished and submerged beneath the waters of a new dam. Lange photographs everyday scenes of town life – the local store; the library – before documenting the way that the town slowly died away. In Family Portrait, Monticello (1956), an old photograph lies abandoned on the floor of a house. The tragic undertones of this sequence was offset by the wonderful photographs in the next and final room, which dated from Lange’s 1954 trip to Ireland with her son Daniel Dixon. Based around Ennis in County Cork, they revel in the traditional county life that remained unspoiled by the kind of progress that Lange had been seeing in California, and include some remarkable faces: that of Paddy Reynolds, for example, or Bridget Wylde. It’s significant that, throughout her long career, Lange was most interested in people. When she photographs landscapes, they’re views which help us to understand the people of those lands and their contexts and troubles.

Sensitive, angry and compassionate by turns, Lange was both journalist and artist. Her work is intense and demands engagement on the viewer’s part. You can’t just browse by on the surface. You have to look at these faces, read Lange’s notes when they exist, and think about what these people went through – whether it’s the weary farmhands of the Depression, or the American-Japanese of the 1942 relocations. It’s immensely trite to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but here it’s true – achingly, forcefully so. You won’t be able to go see this for yourselves, because it has now finished, but I strongly urge you to look at Lange’s section on Wikimedia Commons, or to buy one of the numerous books about her work. There is, of course, an exhibition catalogue should you feel inclined to start there. But she is certainly a photographer who needs to be known.

The camera is an instrument that teaches people
how to see without a camera.

Dorothea Lange

Find out more about the Barbican

Lange: Migratory cotton worker

Dorothea Lange, Migratory cotton picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940

One thought on “Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

  1. Lydia Gray says:

    The photo of the girl, “Damaged Child”, is very sad. What type of shirt is she wearing? Is this girl wearing a flour sack cloth? I hope that this girl’s life became better after this period.

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