All photos by Dorothea Lange; all gifts of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Dorothea Lange’s pictures show people drastically affected by economic conditions including homeless persons, migrants, prisoners, laborers, indigenous people from the American West and more, those “in need.” Lange’s works sparked documentary photography, according to the National Gallery, and captured the “profound social iniquities of the period.”
In many ways, her pictures spanning the eras from the Great Depression to the 1960s, seem to precede by almost a century the time and reality when she took them, environments and circumstances which surround us today and which we tend to ignore.
Philip Brookman was the consulting curator for the department of photographs at the National Gallery who emailed:
“Yes, Dorothea Lange was an environmentalist. She helped document the climate and land use issues that drove farmers from their land during the great depression. Then in 1956 she photographed a project called “Death of a Valley” with photographer Pirkle Jones….about the impact of the postwar economic boom on land use in Northern California. They photographed the damming and flooding of the Berryessa Valley to create a new reservoir to capture water that supplied the growing population and irrigation of new crops.”
Lange was born in Hoboken, N.J. where her childhood was upended by two events which shaped her life: polio and the abandonment of her family by her father. Dorothea was seven when she contracted polio with its life-lasting physical, emotional and every other kind of effects one could guess, and she was 12 when her father left. The family had to move to cheaper dwellings which Dorothea’s mother found in New York. Growing up then in a single-parent household and while her mother worked, Dorothea was free to roam the streets of New York, to see, observe, and remember.
The name of the exhibition is “Seeing People.”
As an adult, Lange made her way to San Francisco where she worked with local artists and photographers, including Ansel Adams. She successfully ran a portrait studio for 15 years, taking pictures of “high society,” subjects she shelved for street society when the Great Depression took hold.
Sarah Greenough is senior curator and head of the department of photographs for the National Gallery who assisted with the show. She emailed that Lange’s pictures hang today because “we felt that the issues Lange addresses in her photographs—poverty, migration/immigration, racism, environmental degradation—are still relevant today. In addition, we felt that the values Lange reveals in her pictures—especially the importance of empathy—are ones that are important for us to remember.” (The National Gallery also wanted “to celebrate the very generous gift from Dan Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser of 168 Dorothea Lange photographs.”)
During World War II Lange worked for the War Relocation Authority documenting some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were driven from their homes and businesses by the government to domestic prisons or “detention centers” as they were called.
One of her photos shows a grocery in Oakland, California where the American-born owner posted a sign on his family’s store the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed: “I AM AN AMERICAN,” it said. Nevertheless, the family was forced to a detention center in Arizona where they were incarcerated for more than two years, never to return to Oakland, another shameful chapter in American history.
Lectures to accompany the exhibition will be held in the Gallery’s East Building Auditorium at 12 p.m., Jan. 28, 2024 with Brookman and artists Carolyn Drake and Susan Meiselas, and at 12 p.m, March 10, 2024 with senior lecturer David Gariff to discuss Portraits and People: 10 Women Photographers, 1920–2020, to include Lange, Zanele Muholi, and Nona Faustine.
Registration is required to attend the March 10 event in person or virtually, presented during Women’s History Month: tickets.nga.gov/events/018ae22c-66b4-f1b9-f111-c7e2c28f90b1.
An illustrated exhibition catalog with more than 200 pages is available in the shops or online.
Parking is free on Sundays in the District where drivers may take advantage of the large U.S. Capitol parking lot at Third and Pennsylvania NW, a block from the National Gallery where I have always found a spot. Several Metro stations are close by, but I get off at the Smithsonian stop and walk about 15 minutes through the National Mall to see the exhibitions there.