Dorothea Lange has always been one of my favorite photographers – not only for her body of work but for her personal story. Like so many photographers of her generation (1895 -1965), she was largely self-taught and, before she actually picked up a camera, knew that being a photographer was what she wanted to do with her life. She hitchhiked cross-country with a girlfriend, from Hoboken to San Francisco where, when her money ran out, she became a studio photographer, specializing in portraits of the wealthy.
As a result of childhood polio she had a distinct limp, which didn’t seem to inhibit her sense of herself as an independent woman, but it probably did help transform her from a conventional middle class daughter to an adventurer who sympathized with the poor and downtrodden and brought to her work a personal sympathy that earned her the trust of her subjects. She married an agricultural economist, and travelled with him to rural California where, during the Depression, she began to photograph the tragedies unfolding around her – homelessness, poverty, and migrants from the Dust Bowl whose despair she captured like few others.
This is MoMa’s second one-person Lange exhibition. The first took place in 1965, a few months after her death. This time around, the curator has chosen to emphasize Lange’s “words.” It’s an odd choice since Lange’s images are so powerful that they need no words to explain or even deepen them. They are timeless tributes to human emotion – and aesthetic elegance — in all its varieties.
From 1935 to 1939, she worked with government agencies, alongside her husband. Finally, she was hired by Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Security Administration, to document on her own the plight of farmers, sharecroppers and their families. She complained that her male colleagues got the plum assignments, but in the end, she delivered a majority of the images that are now considered iconic.
She did, on occasion, use the camera as a tool to contrast “words” vs. “reality.”
But her main focus was always on the disenfranchised, of all colors and races. Indeed, she worked with Richard Wright on a book about Black Lives and her images of Japanese internment camps were censored and withheld until well after World War II.
There is a short film of Lange, at the end of her life, discussing her upcoming one-person show at MoMA, and choosing the images she wanted in the exhibition. She says, disingenuously, that she’d rather spend her last days taking images of her cottage by the ocean. In fact, she was fiercely ambitious and deeply honored to be the first woman photographer to have a solo exhibition at MoMA.
For those who have never seen Lange’s work – and those who have – this is an exhibition not to be missed. And for those further intrigued by her life, I recommend the award winning biography, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
11 West 53rd Street
Through May 9, 2020