“Five years earlier, I would have thought it enough to take a picture of a man, no more. But now, I wanted to take a picture of a man as he stood in his world.” — Dorothea Lange
Fifty years ago, famed documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and her husband, Paul S. Taylor (1895–1984), made the remarkable gift of all of her non-public-domain photography collection and archives to the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). That adds up to about 25,000 negatives and 6,000 prints, plus letters, captions, jewelry and other memorabilia. Although a small selection of Lange’s photographs are always on display in OMCA’s history and art galleries, the bulk of the collection is preserved in secure cold storage for use by researchers and selected special-purpose licensees.
Now over 130 of Lange’s fabulous black-and-white gelatin silver prints, plus new digitally printed photographs from her negatives, accompanied by unedited proof sheets, memorabilia and historic objects, are on show at OMCA in a “must-see” exhibit, which not only presents stunning images that retain their artistry, vitality and relevance, but also delineate Lange’s importance in the history of documentary photography.
Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is divided into three subject matter segments: Depression Era; World War II at home; and the lesser-known, post-war California. Displayed also are compelling works by three excellent contemporary photographers who were inspired by Lange: Janet Delaney, Jason Jaacks and Ken Light. For those not familiar with Lange’s life and career, it’s best to preface the exhibit by watching the three video segments from Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2013), the PBS American Masters special, which are part of the exhibition. They feature interviews with Lange and explore her life and work.
Lange’s Depression Era photographs transformed her from a toney portrait photographer in San Francisco to a fine documentary photographer and activist. White Angel Breadline, San Francisco (1933), shown with its accompanying proof sheet, remains an early undeniable and formidable image of the Depression. These early images helped to propel her career with the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, for whom she took her most reproduced shots of dust-bowl migrants, to whom she referred as “American Refugees.”
Her most recognized portrait, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) has pride of place in the gallery, as do six preliminary photographs of the subject, Florence Thompson, with her children. Thus, one can observe Lange’s image choices and cropping techniques. Other intimate portraits taken in the American South portray strong and dignified African-American sharecroppers living in poverty.
Lange’s photographs of the home-front during World War II consist of the integrated workforce of Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, and her powerful Japanese-American Internment pictures. When Lange was engaged by the United States Office of War Information to record the Japanese internment, she was to demonstrate to the public that the process was orderly and peaceful. But Lange’s masterful pictures portrayed the sorrow and injustice and thus were censored and withheld from the public for more than 20 years. Japanese Children with Tags, Hayward, California (1942) is particularly poignant and insightful, as is the oral and visual section of OMCA’s history gallery on this subject.
Lange’s post-war photography, the third section of the exhibit, contains her least known work. Not to be missed are her photographs with Pirkle Jones for a special issue of Aperture magazine, titled, Death of a Valley, which captures peaceful images of the Berryessa Valley before it was dammed. Lange’s 1960 Public Defender article in This Week Magazine, which follows Public Defender Martin Pulich of Alameda County as he interacts with his clients, in jail and in court, is more striking for the concept than some of the imagery, although some, like, Untitled (Defendant’s Wife) (1957) is magnetic.
Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is artfully curated by OMCA’s Curator of Photography and Visual Culture, Drew Johnson, and reinforces Dorothea Lange as one of the great social realism photographer of the 20th century. This exhibition will be at OMCA through August 13, 2017, after which it is scheduled to travel to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, and the Jeu de Paume, Paris. For information, visit OMCA online.
Dorothea Lange through her god-daughter’s eyes
Since I wanted to learn more about Dorothea Lange, Berkeley resident Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s goddaughter and the granddaughter of photographer Imogen Cunningham, graciously agreed to meet with me. Since Partridge’s father, Rondal, had been Lange’s assistant, Partridge grew up as part of Lange’s large extended family, although Lange died when Partridge was 14. Partridge is the author of several well-regarded books about Lange, most recently, the beautiful Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2013), a companion piece to the 2014 PBS American Masters special, directed and narrated by Emmy award-winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor, granddaughter of Lange and Lange’s second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, who was a professor of economics at Berkeley until 1962.
When Lange first met Paul Taylor, with whom Lange worked at the Farm Security Administration, both were married with children, Lange to Western American painter Maynard Dixon. In December 1935, after Lange and Taylor divorced their respective spouses and married each other, they rented a house at 2706 Virginia St. in Berkeley. In 1940, they moved nearby to 1163 Euclid Ave., beside Codornices Creek, which was designed in 1910 by Bernard Maybeck’s brother-in-law John White. “She loved that house,” said Partridge. Lange lived and worked in the secluded house until her death in 1965.
As a child, Partridge was a bit daunted by Lange’s forceful personality. “She had amazing fortitude. We called her ‘Dictator Dot,’ she said. Lange had a strong sense of self and was not an easy person with whom to get along. Lange was demanding to those close to her, especially her children and grandchildren. So Partridge wisely kept some distance between her and her godmother, although her admiration for Lange and Lange’s prodigious talent is clear.
Lange often disregarded instructions from her superiors at the Farm Security Administration in order to photograph what she thought was most important to be seen. For example, the FSA told Lange not to photograph “poor Negroes” (to use the then common term), since they might not be as sympathetic to the public as whites, a warning she ignored, Partridge told me. While photographing, Partridge said, “Lange relied on her instinct and her eye.”
Lange was not the typical Berkeley professor’s wife, and didn’t enjoy aspects of it, yet she played the role, Partridge said. Locality was important to both Lange and Taylor. They agreed, before Lange’s death, to donate her archives to the Oakland Museum of California, rather than a museum in San Francisco or elsewhere.
As Partridge reviews Lange’s photographs over time, different images come to the forefront as most resonant to her. “History alters views,” she said.
For me, talking to Elizabeth Partridge about her godmother in her charming Craftsman-style home, and seeing her photographs of Lange is a memory that will remain and it deepened my appreciation for this remarkable photographer.