How a Depression-era photographer found her calling

Migrant Mother: an emblematic portrait (Getty)

One of the most recognised and reproduced photographic images in the world is the care-worn visage of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936). The mother’s gaze no doubt strikes some viewers, and rightfully so, as Marian. This is a mother who has witnessed the hardship, if not the death, of those she loves.

That emblematic face serves as the frontispiece for Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, an exhibition first held at the Oakland Museum of California in 2017 to mark the 50th anniversary of the artist’s gift to them of her personal archive. This collection travelled to both the Barbican in London and the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2018 and early 2019 before arriving at the Frist Museum, Nashville, Tennessee, where it is today.

The exhibition includes 130 black-and-white photographs, along with Lange’s handwritten notes, correspondence and a biographical film by her granddaughter Dyanna Taylor. Her images and words – indeed, she is doubly eloquent – chart Lange’s career from portrait photography in the 1920s to her visual chronicle of the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and Second World War home front to activist photojournalism in the 1950s and 1960s championing environmental, labour and criminal justice reform.

Born in 1895, Lange was educated in the fine arts at Columbia University in New York. She ran a successful portrait photography studio in San Francisco in the 1920s. One day in 1932, Lange was drawn from her studio window high above the street by the figures of unemployed labourers who had drifted to the port city in hope of work. Lange, a young woman with a permanent limp from childhood polio, could read the stories told in gesture; forced by parental divorce to grow up in the home of an imperious grandmother, she was no stranger to humiliation or change in fortune.

Lange’s eye and camera were called to a new vocation by those lean, sun-wrinkled men in bread lines; their layers of tattered clothes and hand-lettered signs now form part of our cultural vocabulary. An observer, never an intruder, Lange connected with their vulnerability; her particular form of documentary journalism had begun.

The exhibition gives us, in perfect gel prints, much of what we expect to see; we know whose work it is. But, as occurs in the presence of a truly fine art collection, we receive an unexpected gift. Lange’s photographs record place as strongly as they convey person. In a vast enlargement from Coachella Valley, 1935, one almost expects to step into the dry silence of an enlarged Dust Bowl landscape. Parched, dead stems lie white as bones against an endless field of dust. The wind-beaten house, its windows bare against the sky, sags in desolation as palpable as that on a human face. Studying the composition of the smaller original framed print reveals how complete, how full was Lange’s vision.

In so many memorable images, here are the people of half a century of America. But here too we are given their worlds: 1930s cotton farms of Eutaw, Alabama, and melon fields in California’s Imperial Valley; the Richmond, CA, wartime shipyards; Manzanar Relocation Center, 1942; and in the series Death of a Valley (1960), the now disappeared Berryessa Valley of Napa County, flooded to build a reservoir to accommodate post-war expansion.

Lange travelled widely for decades, working for government agencies as well as various publications. In 1940 she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship. As she documented, she both exposed and offended, particularly with her post-Pearl Harbor images of Japanese-American families clad in Sunday best, waiting on their neat front porches to be relocated to desolate barrack towns.

Stirred by the situation, Lange intended to subvert, and her employer, the War Relocation Administration, confiscated a trove of her negatives. Collaborating separately with Quaker pacifist Caleb Foote in the magazine Outcasts, Lange made public the largely hidden internment story in 1943. Viewing her work today, we need no prompting to reflect on inhumane treatment of targeted minorities.

Lange’s later work remained political and encountered resistance. In 1957, Life cancelled a stark photo essay entitled “Public Defender” in which she shadowed an Oakland attorney. Exhausted African-American women, bent in shame on hallway benches, cover their faces as they wait for hearings; we see what the women cannot in Lange’s photos of the agonised expressions of their men, also waiting, crammed in jail cells for lack of bail. These images, some uncredited, did reach the public in later years, appearing in This Week in 1960 and in the Filipino paper Chronicle the following year. Of the pieces collected in the exhibit, this series feels most contemporary.

Lange died in 1965. Seeing was her great gift; her intense, piercing gaze gained luminosity with age, seen here in portraits of the artist herself. What Lange captured through her lens and makes us see does not easily fade from the screens of our visual memories. In Politics of Seeing, her art carries the day; these so very human photographs escape the shrill. The postscript of a handwritten letter to Lange from John Steinbeck, commenting on their similar subjects, reads: “I hope I can do it as gallantly as you have.”

Hers was indeed a gallant and most American life, well worth a walk through in this collection, wherever it may travel, or in its accompanying book and film.

Wyeth Burgess, a classicist and a scholar of Southern Literature, writes from Nashville, Tennessee