Photography and Social Change: Dorothea Lange and the Politics of Seeing

A new exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s work at the Barbican Centre in London offers a more expansive outlook on the photographer’s life as a trailblazing social documentarian.

Photographer Dorothea Lange is a seminal figure in both the history of social documentary photography and the historical progression of photography as a medium. Most individuals encounter Lange through her iconic image Migrant Mother, a photograph of Florence Owens Thompson taken in Nipomo, California at the height of the Great Depression in 1936. The contemplative mother, with her hand grazing her cheek, looks into the distance past Lange’s lens while her three children cling to and crawl up her body, their faces turned from the camera. Since it was first taken, the image has become a pervasive symbol of the Depression, and in particular represents the mass migration of Americans from the Midwestern states to California that resulted from the catastrophic economic decline.

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Regarding Lange’s legacy, associations with such an iconic image have simultaneously been a blessing and a curse. While the photographer’s name remains a bolded marker in the history of the medium, her career is often overshadowed by the single photograph, leaving far less room for knowledge of her greater oeuvre and impressive pursuits. Broadening Lange’s narrative and contextualizing Migrant Mother as a moment within an expansive career, a new retrospective of Lange’s work has just opened at the Barbican in London. Titled Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing, the exhibition traces the photographer’s work and legacy across multiple decades, articulating her working process through prints and archival materials, such as featured issues of LIFE magazine, first edition copies of breakthrough publications, and Lange’s own field notes and letters.

The exhibition begins with a selection of Lange’s pictorial portraits made throughout the 1920s. These images reflect her personal life in addition to the constructed narratives and characters she frequently associated with in the West Coast photography scene at the time. Commenting on the importance of this early work, Barbican curator Alona Pardo says, “We wanted to anchor and position her not only as this lone ranger doing her own thing, but also as someone who was very much in dialogue with photographers in the West Coast. It was important to do this before moving into her FSA photographs, which is of course the heart of her work.”

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