Socialist Worker

Two Dorothea Lange exhibitions question the political uses of photography

Dorothea Lange’s images are about more than just the 1930s in the US, and another exhibition looks at how photos are used, writes?Josh Hollands

Issue No. 2611

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona (Pic: The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California)

Politics of Seeing is the first British retrospective of renowned US photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965).

Lange is most well-known for her iconic image of a migrant mother looking sullen yet resolute during the 1930s. The subject is a migrant from the dust bowl that swept through the Midwest plains at the height of the Great Depression.

A series of photographs detailing Lange’s encounter with the migrant mother is at the centre of the exhibition. The viewer is treated to other shots from the same series to provide an insight into the development of that image and its later uses.

The exhibition delves beyond images of dust bowl refugees to provide a comprehensive retrospective.

We are introduced to Lange through her early portraiture work. It was before she was drawn out of the studio to document demonstrations of union activists at the height of the depression and the birth of the “New Deal.”

Lange is also central to a free exhibition currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Killed Negatives details the story of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that launched a photographic initiative between 1935 and 1944.

The FSA hired photographers to document the struggles of rural poverty during the depression.

For Roy Stryker and other administration heads these images would provide the evidence needed to convince politicians of the need for their agency.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (Pic: The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California)

Intriguingly this exhibition centres on the photographic negatives that Stryker “killed.” He punched holes through negatives deemed inappropriate.

Because of this black discs float over the faces of the rural poor and the landscapes they inhabit. The viewer is forced to constantly question why each image was “killed” and what the wider implications were for the agency and those documented.

The exhibit brings to light images that were “technically inadequate” or did not meet the propaganda needs of New Deal administrators. Interestingly Lange’s work was not “killed” by Stryker. But we gain insight into her process through her field notes on view.

Stryker pushed photographers to find images of decay and depravation to support the FSA’s claims. This was often at the cost of diminishing the dignity of their subjects.

The original documents on view alongside the “killed negatives” feature photographers excitedly reporting the feeling of dejection among white and black refugees.

The Lange retrospective proves that this need not have been the case. Her images brought dignity to those exploited and oppressed.

The migrant mother and the Japanese-Americans interred in concentration camps by the US government at the onset of the Second World War are each treated with respect.

So are the defendants in the California criminal justice system or those left behind in rural Ireland as their neighbours migrated to the US that caught her attention in the 1950s.

Included in the ticket price alongside Dorothea Lange is the first retrospective of British photographer, Vanessa Winship.

She continues several themes from Lange’s exhibit including migration, refuge and environment.

One compelling part of the Winship collection documents the US during the 2011-2012 election as the country recovered from recession and witnessed the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Lange’s images humanised her subjects and demonstrated the harsh reality of the depression in a way that the elite could not ignore.

Seeing these works in the times we are living through is revealing.

Migrants and refugees face an intensified attack from the Trump administration and from governments across Europe.

These exhibitions remind us of the political uses and abuses of photography.

As Lange states in an interview screened as part of the exhibition, her intention was “not to show how great we are, but what it is [actually] like.”

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing and Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds. A photography double bill, Barbican Centre Art Gallery, until 2 Sep, £13.50.
Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, Whitechapel Gallery, until 26 Aug. Free.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 3 Jul 2018, 14:56 BST
Issue No. 2611
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.