Dorothea Lange’s America

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936.

Dorothea Lange’s America
September 18–December 31, 2014

Lange’s empathetic images of migrant workers, suffering families, and tortured landscapes have seared the imagery of the Depression into America’s consciousness. Her most celebrated photographs of that era—Migrant Mother, White Angel Breadline, and Migratory Cotton Picker—have become icons in American cultural history.

The Great Depression was the catalyst for a tremendous outburst of creative energy in America's photographic community. The devastation wreaked upon the country inspired a host of socially conscious photographers to capture the painful stories of the time. This exhibition features the work of thirteen of these artists.

Pre-eminent among these was Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Lange herself knew adversity early in life. Raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, at age seven she was stricken with polio, which left her with a lifetime limp. And at age twelve her father abandoned her family, leaving an impoverished household behind. Perhaps in defiance of the odds against her, Lange early and consistently displayed an independent streak. She played truant from school, preferring to wander the ethnic neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.

She rejected her mother's choice of a teaching career for her, declaring—even before she had ever touched a camera!—that she would be a photographer, then heading west to San Francisco to make a living in her chosen field. There she befriended the photographers Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, and, through them, the celebrated Western painter Maynard Dixon, who became her first husband. Within a few months of her move she opened a thriving portrait studio that catered to San Francisco’s professional class and moneyed elite. But with the onset of the Depression she found her true calling as a peripatetic chronicler of the many faces of America, old and young, urban and rural, native-born and immigrant, as they dealt with unprecedented hardship, sometimes with resilience, often with despondence.

Lange's working method was gentle, open, and personal. She engaged her photographic subjects in conversation, winning their confidence and their consent to be photographed. Ironically, her limp, by marking her as someone who had suffered in her own way, helped her to disarm and bond with her subjects. Her pictures typically focus on a single figure, even amidst a crowd shot. And work—its presence or absence—is a constant theme, connected, perhaps, to a frequent emphasis on people's hands.

The importance of Lange’s Depression work was recognized almost immediately, and led to a long and fruitful collaboration with the New Deal's Farm Security Administration (FSA). After the War, she was the first woman photographer awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, helped found Aperture magazine, and was honored by the Museum of Modern Art with a career retrospective. Her most important achievement, however, is that her Depression-era work served in a real way to alleviate the suffering of the very people she chronicled: it raised public awareness of the dire need for federal assistance around the country, and helped convince Congress to provide it.

All works in this exhibit are drawn from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. The exhibit has been organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions.