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Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing Review - Barbican

22nd June – 2nd September 2018

Adult: £19.50

Concessions: £11 Students/14-17: £9

Young Barbican: £5


“This is an incredible opportunity for our visitors to see the first UK survey of the work of such a significant photographer. Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today.”

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican

Dorothea Lange is admired as a pioneer of twentieth-century documentary photography. Her renowned ‘Migrant Mother’ is arguably recognised as the emblem of The Great Depression of America. It depicts a desolate Mother, in all her beauty, strength and fear, staring into an empty future surrounded by her starving children and deprived of hope and happiness. The image, captured at a destitute pea-pickers camp in California,1936, soon became one of the most iconic images in American culture, capturing the spirit of a depleted nation. It’s an image of loss that distinguished Lange’s early work: loss of property, prospects, hope and self. Lange called this effect ‘human erosion’. The destitution of her subjects was mirrored in the over-cultivated farmland soil that characterised and surrounded them, diminishing any hope of The American Dream.

Exhibition View

Not only did Lange document such heart-wrenching images: she ingeniously utilised them to raise awareness and save lives. Following the capture of ‘Migrant Mother’ Lange relayed it directly to the San Francisco News, where its publication drew intense sympathy from readers. Other papers quickly followed suit, and within days the federal government had rushed much needed aid to the desolate camp. Through the voluntary free distribution of her picture Lange indirectly disencumbered the pea-pickers’ woes, essentially saving their lives. Lange opened the eyes of Americans to what many could scarcely imagine or believe to be happening in their country at that time. “A camera is a tool,” she once said, “for learning how to see without a camera.”

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

‘Migrant Mother’ is displayed at the Barbican alongside portrayals of architecture and landscapes, motifs within Lange’s repertoire that are often overlooked. Vintage prints in the exhibition are complemented by the display of original publications from the 1930s to foreground her influence on American authors such as John Steinbeck, whose renowned novel The Grapes of Wrath was informed by Lange’s photography. The exhibition continues with never-before-seen photographs of the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans that Lange produced on commission for the War Relocation Authority. These followed the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, 1941. Such images demonstrate Lange’s range and skill not only concerning photographic ability, but in her extensive political interest and advocation. The Barbican exclusively displays this series for the first time outside of the US.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933

Following the display of the Japanese American internment is a photographic series of the wartime shipyards in Richmond, California. Lange captured these with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984), with whom she collaborated to document the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944. They emphasised the severe increase in population, numbers which created increased economic pressure for shipyard workers and the industry. In response to the mass recruitment of workers, Lange turned her camera on newly recruited and never-before-seen female and black shipyard workers: she emphasised their defiance and resistance of sexist and racist attitudes. Again, Lange demonstrates the strong standards of equality and justice that are the very foundations of her photography, pioneering equal rights in the face of adversity.

San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education, 1942

The exhibition features several of Lange’s more well known post-war series, when she photographed extensively in California. Death of a Valley, made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones (1956–57), convincingly captures the destruction of a once fruitful landscape, and a traditional way of life. The photographs pay testament to Lange’s environmentalist politics, these too making their debut at the Barbican’s exclusive exhibition.

Finally, the exhibition concludes with Lange’s series of Ireland (1954). Spending six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, Lange captured the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis. Stark and emotive photographs symbolise Lange’s attraction to the traditional life of rural communities, again demonstrating her striking and expansive photographic range.

Lange’s courage is evident from early childhood. She took her mother’s maiden name when her Father deserted the family. She studied photography long before she could even afford a camera. Of the polio that left her with a heavy limp, she wrote how “it formed me, guided me, instructed me.” Lange used her camera as a political tool to critique challenging themes of injustice, inequality, migration and displacement. Defiant, principled, tireless in her pursuit of the individual in every crowd, she revolutionised photography in the long term.

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