Exhibition examines a broad range of the work of Dorothea Lange through the lens of social and political activism

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Exhibition examines a broad range of the work of Dorothea Lange through the lens of social and political activism
Dorothea Lange. Residents Awaiting Evacuation to Assembly Centers, Oakland, 1942. Archival pigment print. © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor.

NASHVILLE, TENN.- The Frist Art Museum presents Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, an exhibition that examines a broad range of the artist’s work through the lens of social and political activism. The Frist is the only U.S. venue that is hosting this exhibition after its 2017 debut in California. In addition to presenting Lange’s iconic photographs from the Great Depression, the exhibition features works from her early years as a studio portraitist in San Francisco, along with images of the grim conditions of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, naval shipyard workers of different sexes and races contributing to the patriotic cause, and inequity in our judicial system in the 1950s. Organized by the Oakland Museum of California, which houses Lange’s personal archive, the exhibition is on view in the Frist’s Upper-Level Galleries from March 15 through May 27, 2019.

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) is recognized as one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, and her insightful and compassionate work has exerted a profound influence on the development of modern documentary photography. With hardship and human suffering as a consistent theme throughout her career, Lange created arresting portraits with the aim of sparking reform. Politics of Seeing encompasses approximately 130 vintage and modern photographs and personal memorabilia, including a handwritten letter from the author John Steinbeck. Portions of a documentary produced by one of Lange’s granddaughters will also be on view.

Upon Lange’s death in 1965, her husband, the labor economist Paul Taylor, gave her extensive archive of more than twenty thousand negatives, six thousand prints, and assorted field notes and letters to the Oakland Museum of California, which is located near their longtime home in Berkeley. The exhibition is drawn from that noteworthy collection. In addition to appearing in Nashville and Oakland, Politics of Seeing has been presented at the Barbican in London and the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Lange knew from a young age that she wanted to be a photographer. In San Francisco, she began work in a photography shop and quickly became enmeshed within the city’s artistic community. In 1919, she opened what would become a successful portrait studio. Lange shifted her attention from capturing the city’s elite to the impoverished unemployed figures she saw on the streets through her studio window as the devastating effects of the economic depression spread throughout the country. “Lange applied her skill as a portraitist to connect with her subjects throughout her career,” says Frist Art Museum curator Katie Delmez. “Her empathy for the ‘walking wounded,’ which she attributed to her own experience of living with a physical disability, led her to create photographs meant to raise awareness of suffering and injustices.”

In addition to recording scenes of urban poverty, Lange documented the plight of American refugees who had left the Midwest because of drought and dust storms. The 1936 photograph Migrant Mother, of a mother and three children in a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California, has become an emblem of the hardship endured by many during the American Great Depression. Lange worked for the government’s newly established Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration), and her images were powerful arguments for government assistance. In southern states, Lange saw and made images that exposed racial and economic power relationships that led to exploitative tenant farming practices.

World War II, and the industrial jobs it created, helped bring the United States out of its economic depression. When President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order calling for the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, the government hired Lange again to photograph the process. “This time, though, she was not in agreement with the government’s motivations, which she saw as racist and unfair,” says Delmez. “Her disgust at the policy and her sympathy for her subjects is evident in her photographs. Most were censored and remained unseen for decades.”

After the war ended, Lange turned her attention to the changing people and landscape of California. Not everyone was benefiting from the booming economy and unrestrained development. Lange responded with a series devoted to the removal of an entire community and natural environment in order to build a dam and lake. She also was concerned about the lack of equity in our urban criminal justice system and created empathetic portraits of prisoners and their families as they experienced booking, arrest, and court appearances.

Through these works and others, Politics of Seeing offers a comprehensive examination of a woman who is widely recognized as one of the most important documentary photographers of the twentieth century. “Although Lange’s photographs were taken over half a century ago, many of the issues they address remain relevant today,” says Delmez. “Poverty, environmental degradation, the treatment of immigrants, and racism, as well as the role of images in shaping public opinion and political positions, are topics very much on our minds in today’s turbulent climate.”

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