Dorothea Lange – The Politics of Seeing

Dorothea Lange

“There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it”. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is one of the most discussed and reproduced photographs in the world. It is worth noting here that this iconic image was singled out from a series of seven photographs of Florence Owens Thompson and her children that Lange took in February or March 1936. Lange produced multiple frames of the scene to get the shot she wanted. The last of them – a close-up portrait of Thompson – was quickly picked up by newspapers and the illustrated press. Words were as important to Lange as the photographs they accompanied, and wherever possible she recorded details of her subjects’ histories and economic backgrounds. The title caption for the Migrant Mother image has remained unfixed since its very first reproduction, appearing variously as Migrant Workers and Destitute Pea Pickers, and the image’s availability in the public domain has given rise to endless uses and appropriations over which Lange had little or no control. Migrant Mother Nipomo, 1936. The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor.

“I never steal a photograph. Never. All photographs are made in collaboration, as part of their thinking as well as mine.” — Dorothea Lange

The Politics of Seeing features major works by the world famous American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895, Hoboken, New Jersey–1966, San Francisco, California). This is the first exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s work in France in twenty years.  The exhibition focuses on the extraordinary emotional power of Dorothea Lange’s work and on the context of her documentary practice. It features five specific series: the Depression period (1933-1934), a selection of works from the Farm Security Administration (1935-1939), the Japanese American internment (1942), the Richmond shipyards (1942-1944) and a series on a Public defender (1955-1957). Visitors to this exhibition will be able to discover the strength of her vision and her social engagement with the world she was living in. She used the camera as a tool, combining images with the written word, a vital element in her documentary approach that is introduced in this show as a major part of her practice.

“Not a retrospective but a selection of Dorothea Lange’s work from the 1930s and 1940s. Lange was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the experience of American people during the Great Depression. Her work was groundbreaking because it combined, for the first time, artistic quality with images of the poor and forgotten… displaced farm families and migrant workers. It is apparent that Lange was able to establish a special rapport with her subjects. Firstly, because her own political convictions allowed her to connect with them. In the film accompanying the exhibition, Lange explains that she always told the people a little about herself before taking the photos. As a result, the emotional quality of her work is striking.” -L.R.

In addition to the prints, a selection of personal items, including contact sheets, field notes and publications allow the public to situate her work within the context of this troubled period.

The exhibition at the Jeu de Paume is an analysis of her work in the context of its time. It reveals the complexity of the period and the history of the United States of America, bringing to the fore important aspects of American society that have founded its identity. The exhibition offers a new perspective on the work of this renowned American artist, whose legacy continues to be felt today. Highlighting the artistic qualities and the strength of the artist’s political convictions, this exhibition encourages the public to rediscover the importance of Dorothea Lange’s work as a landmark in the history of documentary photography.

“What was especially eerie about the Dorothea Lange exposition at the Jeu du Paume was its relevance to today’s news. The Migrant photos, shot mostly in the 30’s, could be the photos taken in Migrant camps today, except for the ethnicity of the subjects and the landscapes. And the faces of the Japanese-Americans assembling for the California internment camps hold the same stoic yet pained expressions as those of the European Jews boarding trains for extermination camps in Poland at approximately the same time. The difference in this case is that Lange was employed by the FSA to document this flux, whereas most of the European photos were candid, taken on the sly. As noted by the curator of the exhibition, Dorothea Lange was the first documentary photographer to bring the aesthetics of portrait photography—lighting and composition—to documentary photography. By introducing herself and explaining her mission to the subjects, she elicited natural yet diverse expressions. I have no doubt that it was her ability to communicate her personal ethos to her subjects that allowed their message to so honestly inhabit their faces and postures. While the portraits of the Migrant women, mostly drawn mothers holding children, exhibit a pleading pathos; those of the mens range from cocky to determined to desperate. These are true portraits and Lange’s ethics and methodology are the basis of documentary photography today.” -J.B.

Exhibition running through 27 January at the Jeu de Paume


Dorothea Lange

Ex-slave with a Long Memory, Alabama, 1938 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California