Truth-Telling Through the Lens of a Camera

by Sura Wood

OMCA examines the work of Dorothea Lange in the context of major issues of the 20th century.

          Dorothea Lange was perhaps the greatest and most influential documentary photographer of her generation. She was best known for humanizing her subjects, from those fleeing the devastation of the Dust Bowl and scraping by on the margins during the Depression to Japanese Americans forcibly displaced and sent to internment camps during World War II.

          “Lange’s Japanese internment and Depression-era pictures are still like a punch in the face, even after all this time,” says Drew Johnson, curator of “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing,” an exhibition opening this month at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). The show examines Lange’s work in the context of major issues of the 20th century, viewing her searing imagery as a provocative instrument for social change. Lange, however, didn’t regard herself as political in a traditional sense, and resisted being described as an artist; rather, Johnson says, “She saw herself as a person who was trying to tell the truth and help others see that truth through her camera.” Offering both an artistic and historical perspective, the exhibition consists of 130 photographs, some accompanied by quotes from Lange, as well as vintage prints, proof sheets, memorabilia and revealing portraits of the photographer in the field and at play, including one taken by Ansel Adams shortly before Lange died. The show also features her lesser-known bodies of work on urban growth and the transformation of post-war California, and a series on the criminal justice system that followed a young, idealistic Alameda County public defender.

          Lange opened a successful portrait studio in San Francisco in 1918, and though she was often on the road, Berkeley was her base from the 1930s until her death in 1965. She gifted her archive of more than 6,000 prints and 25,000 negatives to the museum.

          The show begins with an exploration of Lange’s childhood. Her father abandoned the family, which profoundly affected Lange and severely reduced the family’s standard of living, and she contracted polio, which left her with a permanent limp. Lange believed her disability and being “one of the walking wounded,” as she described herself, made it easier for her to establish rapport with her subjects and earn their trust. Her deep empathy and respect for the dignity, strength and individuality of the people she photographed was a hallmark of her work. “Her contributions were quite revolutionary,” explains Johnson. “Unlike many documentary photographers who, she said, breezed in and breezed out, without taking time to sit down with people and hear their stories, she always considered her pictures to be collaborations between her and the subject. This is a huge part of her art and what makes her unique.”

          On an impulse one afternoon in 1933, Lange stepped out of her San Francisco studio onto the streets and shot her first documentary photograph, “White Angel Breadline,” which shows a hungry, dejected man with his back to the crowd outside a soup kitchen near Filbert Street. This episode marked Lange’s awakening to suffering in the larger world, and the possibilities of using a camera to make an important statement about societal challenges. She had an uncanny knack for capturing people at their breaking point. The beautifully composed picture of an unidentified San Francisco man in scuffed shoes, collapsed against a scarred wall, his head in his hands (“Man Beside Wheelbarrow, 1934”), for example, is an essay in despair. “I wanted to take a picture of a man as he stood in his world,” Lange recalled. “In this case, a man with his head down, with his back against the wall, with his livelihood, like the wheelbarrow, overturned.”

          In 1935, Lange’s remarkable photographs caught the eye of the Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which enlisted her to bring the deprivation of the poor, dispossessed farm families and Dust Bowl migrants to the attention of the public and stimulate support for government intervention on their behalf. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Gordon Parks were among her contemporaries there, though she was the sole West Coast photographer. Her tenure at the FSA led to her most famous photograph, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” (1936), a stark black and white image of Florence Owens Thompson, a weary 32-year-old woman, whose gaunt face, hardened by poverty and struggle, became the definitive image of the Depression. The iconic picture, which historian Sally Stein deemed “the most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image-making,” took on a life of its own. Seven versions are displayed in a dedicated section of the show, along with newspaper articles in which Thompson voiced her distress at being turned into a symbol of destitution long after her life took a turn for the better.

          In 1942, the U.S. government hired Lange to document the internment of Japanese Americans. Though the goal of the project was to reassure the country that Japanese American citizens were being treated humanely, her powerful photographs instead communicated the tragedy and injustice of their circumstances and the humiliation and cruelty they endured. Their humanity, bewilderment and loss are palpable in Lange’s wrenching pictures of a shell-shocked, bespectacled grandfather awaiting an evacuation bus in Centerville, California; evacuee belongings left in disarray on an Oakland sidewalk; people herded together outside a civil “control station” in downtown San Francisco; the bleak rows of barracks at Manzanar, one of 10 infamous camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated; children with numbered tags pinned to their clothing; and elementary school students pledging allegiance, hands over their hearts, in the ironically titled “One Nation, Indivisible, San Francisco, April 20, 1942.” The military seized the photographs they had commissioned and impounded them for the duration of the war. A selection of these poignant images are displayed in a gallery focusing on World War II on the home front, along with photographs of working women, reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter, on their shifts at the Richmond, California, shipyard.

          The show concludes with a section featuring excerpts from “Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” an informative 2014 PBS documentary that shows Lange discussing her work and observations by people who knew her. It was made by her granddaughter, cinematographer Dyanna Taylor.


May 13 → August 24

Oakland Museum of California

1000 Oak Street, Oakland 318-8453