Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at the Barbican Art Gallery from 22nd June to 2nd September 2018

Exhibition Review – Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at the Barbican Art Gallery from 22nd June to 2nd September 2018


The Barbican Art Gallery presents the first UK survey of the American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) who is considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

The exhibition features over 300 objects from vintage prints and original book publications to ephemera, field notes, letters, and documentary film and is largely chronological spanning from 1919 to 1957.

The exhibition begins with some of Lange’s little known early portrait photographs taken during her time running a portrait studio in San Francisco between 1919 and 1935. Lange was a well-known member of San Francisco’s creative community in this period and friends included Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke.

Most of Lange’s work at this time was portraits of wealthy West Coast families, however the Great Depression in the early 1930s began to signal a shift in her photographic approach moving from the studio into the streets to take pictures of street demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

Lange’s began to work with the newly established historical division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the government agency tasked with the promotion of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme. Lange began to document living conditions across America during the Great Depression, she highlighted the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West; and the terrible conditions of migrant workers and camps across California. Lange began to see the possibilities that her photographs were a record of injustice, inequality, migration and displacement, and highlight the need for government relief.

Lange is best known for the iconic Migrant Mother, a photograph that became a symbol of the Great Depression. However the exhibition illustrates the range of work with a series on sharecroppers in the Deep South that highlights relations of race and power, photographs featuring architecture and landscapes, the influence of Lange’s FSA photographs on authors including John Steinbeck who wrote the famous Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath. Lange also worked  with her second husband Paul Schuster Taylor to produce the photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939.  

The exhibition features Lange’s rarely seen photographs of the internment of more than 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent following the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941. This important series of  photographs remained unpublished during the war and were stored at the National Archives in Washington. It is the first time that this series is shown comprehensively outside of the US and Canada.

Equally important is Lange’s photographic series of the wartime shipyards of Richmond, California with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984). Lange and Adams documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944 recording the female and black workers who played an increasing important role in the wartime workforce.

After the war, Lange worked on Public Defender (1955–1957) which explores the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland. Death of a Valley (1956–57), documents the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek and Ireland (1954) in which Lange captures the traditional life of Irish rural communities.

This fascinating comprehensive exhibition provides plenty of evidence that Dorothea Lange’s range of work has often been overlooked. Her fame was made with the iconic Migrant Mother, however this exhibition illustrates that her other series of photographs documented many important aspects of America history in the first half of the 20th century. This exhibition is a rare opportunity for visitors to see a comprehensive survey of one of the great American photographers of the 20th century.

The exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is on at the same time as Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds. A ticket gains entry to both exhibitions.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information , visit the Barbican website here

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