Dorothea Lange exhibition celebrates activism in art

Dorothea Lange/Courtesy
"Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California." Dorothea Lange (1942). Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor.

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2017 marks the 50th anniversary of 20th-century documentary photographer Dorothea Lange’s donation of her personal archive to the Oakland Museum of California, making the debut of “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing” not exactly a surprise.

Some museums, when the time is ripe to flex their archive’s muscles, are content with trotting out their bevy of masterpieces, early work and personal material of the artists and letting the audience figure out why they should care about this doodle of an angel or that crusted-over palette.

But OMCA’s exhibition bucks the standard template and delivers something fresh, vital and relevant. Admittedly, those descriptors are quite cliché when it comes to museum exhibitions, but OMCA’s coverage of Lange is uniquely refreshing: It’s a brief, but deep, dive into a canonical artist’s work that manages to recapture the spark that made her photographs into American icons.

The exhibit itself is quite small, held in one continuous room sectioned off into discrete mini-galleries arranged in chronological order. After a brief section on her early life, the exhibition tracks her career forward into the Great Depression, World War II and then into her little-known postwar work. Biographical content is kept to a minimum — a wonderful decision, as it allows Lange’s powerful photographs some breathing room to speak for themselves.

The knot that ties the exhibition together, and what prevents it from being simply a retrospective, is the focus on how Dorothea Lange carefully selected and cropped her photographs to speak truth to power. Accompanying many images in the show are reproductions of proof sheets or the uncropped original photo, exposing the gap between image and reality.

Lange constructed her photographs so we see her subjects as she wanted us to — through her always sympathetic gaze — instilling humanity into the often-dehumanized. The most startling example of this on view is the WWII-era “Just About to Step into the Bus for the Assembly Center,” in which white hands swarm around an elderly Japanese man, who wears an identification tag like a piece of luggage. It’s no wonder that the U.S government ensured Lange’s photographs of Japanese internment never got out until safely after the war.

Even when the exhibition displays Lange’s greatest hits, such as “White Angel Breadline, San Francisco” and “Migrant Mother,” the curators are sure to subvert expectations. They even puncture some of the myth surrounding the latter photograph by noting in the wall text how Florence Thompson, the mother, resented being turned into the symbol of “white American motherhood” (even though, as the wall text further clarifies, she is actually part-Native American).

Perhaps the most interesting decision in the exhibition was the inclusion of Lange’s later, postwar photo series. Her “Death of a Valley” series zeroes in on environmental neglect a few years before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” entered the public consciousness, and her “The Public Defender” series humanizes people lost in the justice system. The former highlights Lange’s little known sense of humor, featuring such corrosively funny scenes such as a billboard advertising cheap homes over the pristine California landscape it threatens.

The latter is an uneven but largely successful early look into the inequalities of the justice system, with some of the strongest work being its representation of law enforcement. The police appear metonymically in the photoset, symbolized by a badge and a beat-up police vehicle, implying both their terrifying power and their violence. It’s a disturbingly prescient choice, one that shows how sensitive Lange’s empathy was.

To reinforce the relevance of Lange’s work to today’s inequalities, OMCA has invited four contemporary documentary photographers to exhibit their work, and it’s easy to see how, for example, Ken Light’s photographs of Mexican-American farmworkers are in a direct line of descent from Lange’s pioneering work.  

Forget the two-dimensional Dorothea Lange of United States history textbooks, and let OMCA reintroduce you to Lange’s complex and wide-ranging body of work. You’ll not only see history, but through Lange’s deep feeling for her subjects, you’ll feel it too. You can’t ask for much more from a museum.

Adesh Thapliyal covers literature. Contact him at [email protected].