Dorothea Lange is remembered almost exclusively for “Migrant Mother” (1936), her photograph of an American agricultural labourer resting her chin on her hand while her young children rest their heads on her shoulders. A picture of perseverance and dignity in the face of hardship, it became a famous image of the Great Depression. But it was far from a one-off. “Politics of Seeing”, a retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre, gives Lange’s four-decade-long career the attention it deserves. It shows how her gift for imbuing personal moments with a universal resonance made her a pioneer of social-documentary photography.
Lange, who was born in 1895, had a difficult childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the age of seven she contracted polio and was left with a permanent limp. A few years later her father abandoned the family. Lange headed west in her early 20s, ending up in San Francisco in 1918, where she fell in with the social and artistic elite, became a successful portrait photographer, and enjoyed what appeared to be a charmed bohemian existence. The photographs from this time have a frivolous, fleeting feel to them.
When the Great Depression arrived in the early 1930s Lange decided to use her talent to benefit society. She wanted to others to notice the hardship she noticed on the streets. She would later comment, “the camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Lange went on several long road trips through the Midwest and Deep South while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency. She was able to use the skills she had developed in her studio to strike up intimacy with her subjects, transporting the viewer into what would have been otherwise unimaginable circumstances.
Throughout her career Lange addressed issues as disparate as poverty, the environment, migration, urbanisation, racism and women’s rights. Always, though, her main focus was on the importance of family and community as a source of hope and endurance. It was her ability to empathise with people that gives her work a timeless poignancy.
“Untitled (Mother and Child, San Francisco)” (1928)
Taken at Lange’s studio in the commercial district of San Francisco, this portrait of a mother and child has a glamorous but informal air, which corresponds to descriptions of the studio as “a kind of clubbish place” where friends gathered freely. Lange’s practice was successful and she would later proudly recall, “I was the person to whom you went if you could afford it.” The baby, robust and ruddy cheeked, faces us while the mother turns away as though distracted for just a moment, allowing us to admire the glimmering folds of her dress. It is almost an exact reverse of “Migrant Mother”, where the mother stares out with a heavy, pensive brow and the children hide their faces.
“Line up at social security in early days of the program, San Francisco” (1937)
On the streets of San Francisco during the Great Depression, Lange trained her lens on unemployed men. Here she captures a large group of men waiting to sign up for social-security benefits (“six to fifteen dollars per week for up to sixteen weeks”). One man towards the back has spotted her and catches our eye, but the majority appear unaware of Lange’s presence. She claimed to have picked up the skill of going unnoticed as a child: “I knew how to keep an expression of face that would draw no attention, so no one would look at me. I have used that my whole life in photography.”
“Family on the Road, Oklahoma” (1938)
A young family escaping the drought and dust storms ravaging the Midwest was among nearly 300,000 people to leave their homes in one of the largest mass migrations in American history. Despite their desperation they pause for the photograph, faces solemn but unresigned. Lange liked to build a rapport with her subjects before photographing them and avoided completely candid shots. The works may be posed, to a certain extent, but that doesn’t make them any less authentic. Lange was deeply respectful of the people she worked with and wanted them to be involved in telling their story.
“Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California” (1937)
As part of her work for the FSA, Lange was commissioned to document farmers’ miserable living conditions as a way to increase support for Roosevelt’s New Deal relief programme. The government hoped that seeing how much people were suffering would muster a sense of urgency among taxpayers. Because most taxpayers were white, the FSA encouraged Lange to concentrate on white refugees, a suggestion that she actively resisted, often portraying Mexicans, Filipinos and African-Americans. Here a Mexican father looks us right in the eye with a gaze as tender as it is intense. He cradles a baby while his daughter peers out shyly from inside a roughly assembled shack.
“Plantation overseer and his field hands, near Clarksdale, Mississippi” (1936)
Touring the cotton fields and tobacco plantations of the Deep South, Lange was sensitive to echoes from America’s colonial past. Here the confident stance of the white planter is in constrast to the hunched figures and tired faces of his five black workers. The set-up is faintly threatening. Lange was intensely critical of what she termed, “the empire of cotton”, and together with her second husband Paul Taylor, wrote “An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion” (1939), a book about racial inequality in the South which claimed that the “sharecropper replaced the slave”.
“Woman standing in front of Richmond Café” (c. 1944)
A young woman, smartly dressed with a fur coat draped over her shoulders, stands triumphantly outside a café. She is one of tens of thousands who flocked to a new shipyard in Richmond, California in search of job opportunities. The second world war revitalised the American economy and brought an estimated 12 million women into the workforce. Having spent so long covering the Great Depression, Lange watched the effects of increased prosperity with fascination. This photograph appeared in her photo-essay for Fortune magazine about the lives of shipyard workers and their newfound independence.
Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing Barbican Art Gallery until September 2nd