When it was announced that a Dorothea Lange retrospective was opening at MoMA, I initially found myself oscillating between interest and skepticism. Shouldn’t we be looking at new voices? Lange’s work has been a part of photography’s canon for decades. Migrant Mother is easily one of the most famous images in the world, to the point that it often eclipses a fuller understanding of her work at large.
Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures now coincides with the highest unemployment numbers since the Great Depression. Lange firmly believed her photographs to be a tool for social change. Her photographs shine a light on how little has changed and how much work still needs to be done. The breadth of her work defies easy terms such as document or even record. In these images we are rarely looking at something that happened; we are looking and empathizing with those it happened to.
“All photographs can be fortified by words,” Lange wrote. For her, words could extend the power of an image, not just causing an emotional response but also urging the viewer to not only see but to read, to listen carefully. She wrote that her image captions should carry “not only factual information, but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings,” calling these captions “connective tissue.” Some of her image titles exhibit a matter of factness, a dry wit, On the Road to Los Angeles, California (1937) features two men walking down a dirt road towards a billboard advising to take the train next time. An image of men in front of a building is titled Six Tenant Farmers Without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas (1937).
The power of words also extended beyond image titles, to encompass the voice of her subjects. Whilst photographing, Lange took copious field notes on her assignments recording where, when, and who she was depicting and what they had to say. The exhibition shines a light on these collections and how in pairing the photographs with the subjects’ own words, Lange empowered their voices. The endpapers of her book An American Exodus, which she worked on with her husband, the agricultural economist Paul Taylor, hold the words of her subjects. Upon entering the gallery, these words feature prominently, as an introduction to the images on view, giving voice to the protagonists of her work.
Throughout the show, wall text enriches the images with fragments of Lange’s own notes and extended quotes from those she photographed. This combination of words and pictures hits both head and heart; the photographs touch the viewer but the words allow them to do more than that, they shine a light on the injustices of the wider world through experience and fact. They also illuminate the inner thoughts and methods of a photographer committed to bringing change to the world with the tools at hand.
As I write this from my home in New York City, the lines at food banks are blocks long. With a deep measure of grief, it is an apt time to revisit these photographs. In the photograph White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco (1933), a man is turned toward the camera, away from the mass of people waiting. His eyes are hidden by the brim of his hat, a look of resignation about him, hands clasped.
This photograph led to Lange’s participation in the government’s Resettlement Administration program which would go on to become the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was a New Deal agency created to address the poverty sweeping across rural America. The administration found its natural leader in Roy Stryker who urged his team of photographers to document what was happening across the country, from Dust Bowl migrants to labor strikes. Their directive was to “introduce America to Americans” and so they went about capturing the human face of the ongoing economic crisis.
Beaumont Newhall, the noted curator and historian, considered the FSA’s motive “not to inform us, but to move us.” The FSA photographs not only spurred Americans into action they also became an enduring historical record, one that to this day shapes the way we view the Great Depression. Other greats of American photography like Gordon Parks and Walker Evans were also involved, joining Lange to become its most well known photographers. Within her role there, she made her name photographing the toll of the Depression on the country.
Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas (1938) features barren lines of ploughed earth leading to a forlorn seeming cabin. An air of desolation hangs within the image. Again and again, Lange’s photographs pinpoint struggle and strife, the crush of poverty and dashed dreams. Yet the strength of her images lies in their specificity, in how they condense larger-than-life problems into the situation of each image’s subject.
In watching the news these days, it can often feel overwhelming. How does one cut through the noise? Lange knew that the answer was to pay close attention to her subject. In Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), the subject is seen hand on tilted head, an expression of exhaustion on her face, the softness of a summer cloud unable to temper the grief. It is a look of sorrow, that rests not only on this woman’s face but across her body, the downward press of her lips, the lines around her eyes.
In another photograph, One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco (1942), a group of children appear to be reciting the pledge of allegiance, amongst them a young Japanese-American girl. Her inquisitive look belies what was happening across the country during the Second World War, as people of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated to internment camps. Lange had been working on a series of images documenting these deportations, only to see the photographs pulled from circulation, undermining the full context of what was happening.
In viewing these images now, there are echoes of the same xenophobia and fear; throughout the COVID-19 crisis we are living through there has been a rise in racist attacks towards people of Asian descent; an increase in the deeply dehumanizing ways that this country asks those who appear to be ‘other’ to prove their loyalty, to always work harder for respect.
Lange’s images reveal the constant struggle for human dignity during governmental action or neglect. For all of the social injustices that Lange was committed to capturing and giving face to—one should not overlook the many moments and gestures of compassion depicted in her photographs. For example, the close-up photograph Paul’s Hands (1957) depicting the weathered hands of her husband. This other, lesser-known side of her work is lovingly explored through the inclusion of the book Day Sleeper by Sam Contis. Using Lange’s archives as source material, Contis created a book that plays off of the sensitivity of Lange’s photographs. The images include those from her later years, as well as her early studio work and family photographs. There are scenes of San Francisco in the 1950s and the vibrant street life of Richmond. Details and fragments of images are paired, dissected, and reconsidered to create one artist’s intimate view of another.
In looking at the past we can often better understand our present. Lange’s place in the canon is justified—even more so when viewed from a distance. Her work speaks to the compassion, crisis, and dignity of lives lived, and the importance of bearing witness. Or, as Lange said: “It’s not pictorial illustration, it’s evidence.”