Dorothea Lange… making images speak

Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures

Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: John Wronn

New York’s Museum of Modern Art developed strong links with photographer Dorothea LANGE (1895-1965) at a very early stage. She contributed to the Museums very first photography exhibition in 1940 and participated in the preparation of her first retrospective, which opened in 1966, three months after her death. Today, her work still looks extremely modern and her strong social commitment seems more relevant than ever. Which probably explains why her pictures (often with some kind of accompanying text) are still resonating in museums… and selling well in auctions and galleries.

Words and Pictures

Her eyes are lost in the distance as if her gaze is all she has left to escape from her predicament. Two children around her, a third on her lap. She must be young, but seems to have lived a century. Migrant Mother is Dorothea Lange’s most famous photograph. New York’s MoMA is currently hosting its biggest retrospective of her work in over 50 years (until 9 May) titled Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures … in that order. Approximately a hundred photographs from the museums collections, but also from its archives, and, notably, correspondence, publications and contemporary academic texts that allow us to examine how words – hers and ours – influence the way we understand images.

One of the rare photographers to have been recognized during her lifetime, Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn near New York. After studying at Columbia University and taking photography lessons with Clarence Hudson I WHITE (1871-1925), she decided to move from the East Coast for the West Coast and used her mother’s maiden name to open a studio in San Francisco in 1918. Ten years later, there was the financial crisis of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, sending thousands of workers onto the roads looking for work… and Dorothea left her studio to follow them. She was soon employed by the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) to document the reality of the living conditions of agricultural workers, seriously exacerbated by the catastrophic weather conditions and the stock market crash. Her first field report had a real impact and even passed into the hands of the White House’s tenants, leading to the release of emergency aid to the camp to prevent Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona starvation. The FSA, recognising the informative and emotional power of photography (a medium that was under-used by the US government at that time) formed a small team from which emerged some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century: Walker EVANS, Russell LEE, Arthur ROTHSTEIN and Ben SHAHN. The exhibition looks back over Langes career in chronological order, from her studio portraits to the Great Depression and her work for various government agencies, and particularly her damning documentary on the living conditions of Japanese Americans, interned in camps in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a documentary that was so disturbing it was censored by the Roosevelt administration and not published until 2006.

Her images are very telling, conveying the general atmosphere and the living conditions of her subjects. Despair, resignation, mischievous looks, innocence, anger and fatigue and yet their author never thought her photographs alone were sufficient. And, as things turned out, all the controversy surrounding her iconic Migrant Mother portrait proved her absolutely right: you can make an image say anything and everything. However, her work had a complicated relationship with words as she wanted to be as incisive with her pen as she was with her camera. The MoMA exhibition includes a letter to John Szarkowski in June 1965 which gives an idea of the difficulties she encountered when trying to match text with images: I am working on the captions. This is not a simple clerical matter, but a process, for they should carry not only factual information, but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings. They are connective tissue, and in explaining the function of the captions, as I am doing now, I believe we are extending our medium. Dorothea Lange saw photography as the primary tool of her social commitment because it had the power to save the forgotten from oblivion and because it told the reality of the human stories of her era.

Being the property of the State, her photographs were published for no charge and were therefore quickly seen by a large section of the American public (and beyond). Almost 80 years later, the dramatic impact of her work is still just as effective, and collectors show keen interest when her photographs come up for sale in auctions. In 2005, her market was substantially stimulated by an auction record at $822,400 for «White Angel Bread Line» (Sotheby’s NY), and then, more recently, there was a net acceleration in the number of transactions (40 lots sold vs.12 in 2018) and a record volume of annual auction turnover in 2019 (nearly $1.2 million) which raised her from 2300th place to 876th place in the global ranking. There can be no doubt that the MoMA exhibition will help to put Dorothea Lange back in the spotlight in auction rooms: this Tuesday, February 25, Swann Galleries in New York will be offering no less than 9 of her photographs at prices between $3,000 and $6,000.

Capture du 2020-02-24 14-20-34Dorothea Lange’s Turnover chronological progression (2000-2019). copyright

Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures

MoMA, 2nd floor

Until May 9, 2020