Dorothea Lange: “Politics of Seeing”
Oakland Museum of California,
May 13, 2017–August 27, 2017
Review by Lincoln Cushing
Though she was female and politically on the left, Dorothea Lange was recognized early as an essential image-maker of the Great Depression and U.S. World War II home front. Her work has come to represent an entire slice of history.
Her personal journey into that role, and the ways she navigated her medium as an artist while employed by government agencies, are themes in “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing,” an exhibit drawn from Lange’s archives at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). The archives, which were a gift from the artist, include 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes, and personal memorabilia.
“Politics of Seeing” explains Lange’s commitment to documentation, an approach that confirmed the authenticity of her work and also elevated her art as historic record. Lange not only captured individual faces of participants in America’s turbulent history, she helped preserve their names as well. She kept meticulous notes on her shoots, and these are part of the robust catalog records of her work. Curator Drew Johnson explains how her artistic process evolved in this interview.
However, no one’s records are perfect, and it is evident some of her notes were made after the fact. One of the great photos displayed in huge format is “Shift Change 3:30 PM – Coming on of Yard 3 – Kaiser Shipyards | Kaiser Shipyard – Shift Change 3:30 PM” dated “circa 1942.” (Shown above.) It’s a visual testament to inclusivity on the WWII home front, prominently showing black and women workers in a bustling new industry. But as a historian of Henry J. Kaiser and his industries, I instantly recognized that the date and location were not correct. The photo was taken at Kaiser Richmond Shipyard #2, and it must have been later than 1942, since the first ship wasn’t launched from Yard #3 until August 1943. This is not meant to detract from her work, simply to point out it takes a village to accurately encode our history.
One feature of Lange’s work that resonates with current politics is the nature of government support for cultural workers. Most of the photos in the OMCA exhibit were made while she was employed by agencies such as the Farm Security Administration, which morphed into the Office of War Information. (Her 1936 “Migrant Mother” heads the Library of Congress’ site page on this remarkable body of work.) These jobs were not easy, and the OMCA exhibition reveals some of the inside fights over representation. But at this point in history it’s almost unfathomable to look back and realize that tax dollars were used to hire women like Lange or photographers of color like E. F. Joseph. Revealing that stolen history is the heavy lifting being done by the Living New Deal Project.
OMCA astutely included three contemporary photographers in this exhibition – Janet Delaney, Jason Jaacks, and Ken Light, drawing the photodocumentarian story arc to the present.
Two of the same artists are part of an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center, “Resistors: 50 Years of Social Movement Photography” showing through August 20. Ken Light, with his wife and collaborator Melanie Light, curated the show, andJanet Delaney is one of the dozens of photographers.
This is a wonderfully rich and moving exhibition, which works on many levels.
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