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Empathy and artistry: Rediscovering Dorothea Lange
Installation view of Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 9, 2020 – May 9, 2020. © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: John Wronn.

by Arthur Lubow

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- John Szarkowski was about 13 when he saw an image by Dorothea Lange that “enormously impressed” him. After he had become the powerful director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, he would recall that he took it to be a “picture of the hard-faced old woman, looking out of the handsome oval window of the expensive automobile with her hand to her face as if the smell of the street was offending her, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that marvelous?’ That a photographer can pin that specimen to the board as some kind of exotic moth and show her there in her true colors.”

A quarter of a century after his initial encounter with the photo, working in 1965 with Lange on his first one-artist retrospective at MoMA, he read her full caption for “Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California,” and realized that the fancy car belonged to an undertaker and that the expression he took for haughtiness was grief.

The wry confession of his mistake, which Szarkowski made in 1982 to an interviewer, is not mentioned in “Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures,” which opened Sunday at MoMA. But it illustrates the curatorial theme: Lange’s pictures require verbal commentary to be read legibly.

Curiously, though, the strength of Lange’s photographs at MoMA undercuts the exhibition’s concept. With or without the support of words, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), created some of the greatest images of the unsung struggles and overlooked realities of American life. Her most iconic photograph, which came to be called “Migrant Mother,” portrays a grave-faced woman in ragged clothing in Nipomo, California, in 1936, with two small children burying their faces against her shoulders, and a baby nestled in her lap.

Yet Lange was not simply a Depression photographer. As this revelatory, heartening exhibition shows, she was an artist who made remarkable pictures throughout a career that spanned more than four decades. The photos she took in 1942 of interned Japanese Americans (which the U.S. government suppressed until 1964) display state-administered cruelty with stone-cold clarity: One dignified man in a three-piece suit and overcoat is wearing a tag, like a steer, while disembodied white hands on either side examine and prod him. Her prescient photographs of environmental degradation portray the human cost of building a dam that flooded the Berryessa Valley near Napa. Her empathetic portraits of African American field hands shine a light on a system of peonage that predated and outlasted the 1930s.

Nevertheless, her fame rests largely on the indelible images she made, starting in 1935, as an employee of the Resettlement Administration and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, both under the leadership of Roy Stryker. Lange endured a fractious relationship with Stryker, who seemed deeply discomfited by a strong-minded woman. He fired her in 1940, saying she was “uncooperative.” To his credit, however, he always acknowledged that “Migrant Mother” was the key image of the Depression.

Seeking a deeper understanding of the economic crisis, Lange and her collaborators in the field interviewed her subjects, and she incorporated their words into her captions. She was the first photographer to do that systematically. The show’s curator, Sarah Hermanson Meister, who drew from the museum’s collection of more than 500 Lange prints, includes many of the captions in the wall labels, in an installation that is patterned after Szarkowski’s 1966 Lange show. (The artist died of esophageal cancer before it opened.)

Lange also recorded words on placards and billboards within the photograph itself, following a trail blazed by Walker Evans, a habitué of avant-garde literary circles in New York who loved written language.

Lange’s career owed much to luck, good and bad. Born to German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895 as Dorothea Nutzhorn, she contracted polio at 7 and limped thereafter from a withered right lower leg. She regarded this disability as crucial to her identification with the unfortunate and the outsider. Her father abandoned the marriage, and she moved with her mother and younger brother into the home of her maternal grandmother. After coming of age in her early 20s, Dorothea adopted her mother’s maiden name.

Intent for no reason she could ever explain on becoming a professional photographer, she moved to San Francisco in 1918 and took a job in a photo shop, where she was befriended by Imogen Cunningham, a successful photographer, and her husband, Roi Partridge, an artist. With the financial backing of a young investor, Lange soon set up a portrait studio patronized by many of the city’s most prominent citizens. Through the Partridges, she met and married a painter, Maynard Dixon, who was 21 years her senior. They had two sons.

The Depression changed everything. Venturing outdoors one day in 1933, Lange waded into a sea of disgruntled jobless men, armed with a camera that contained film for recording fine detail. An early picture is a classic: “White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco” (1933), which portrays a throng outside a soup kitchen. Most of the men are seen from the back, a medley of fedoras and caps, the difference in headgear indicating the wearers’ social status before the brutal scything of unemployment. In front, his hands folded, his forearms resting on a wooden barrier and balancing a tin cup, is the photograph’s protagonist: a grizzled old man, his mouth a thin line of despair.

Lange’s photographs of the unemployed quickly attracted attention, most significantly from Paul Taylor, a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied farm labor. Thanks to Taylor, Lange developed a passionate concern for the displaced agricultural workers who were pouring into California. Lange and Taylor fell in love and divorced their spouses, marrying while on assignment in New Mexico.

Together they made a book, “An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion,” in 1939, that used lengthy interview quotations for captions as pungent as the dialogue in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” published the same year. The exhibition includes “An American Exodus” as well as Richard Wright’s “12 Million Black Voices” of 1941, with Lange’s photos of African American laborers, and a progressive lawyers’ handbook that incorporated her unpublished pictures of a public defender for Life magazine.

Lange took so many memorable photographs that it is challenging to shortlist them. One of the greatest is at the entrance to the MoMA show: “Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona” (1940). The farmworker’s hands are close to the lens of the camera. One hand is holding a wooden beam; it could be the implement of his impending crucifixion. The other hand, with its open palm and splayed fingers, covers his mouth. Unforgettably powerful, the photograph resembles self-portraits by Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele, who shared Lange’s interest in extremities — hands and feet, and also, wretched misery.

Many wonderful Lange photographs are not overtly political. “Bad Trouble Over the Weekend” (1964) is a close-up of a woman’s hands folded over her face; one hand bears a wedding band and holds an unlit cigarette. (The subject was her daughter-in-law.) And Lange photographed multitrunked oaks with the same acuity as fingered hands.

The fame of “Migrant Mother” has cropped Lange’s reputation unfairly. She is a key link in a chain of photographic history. From Evans, she learned how to frame precise images of clapboard churches. But unlike Evans, who usually preferred to keep a distance and capture a building’s architectural integrity, Lange always wanted, as she said when describing how she made “Migrant Mother,” to move “closer and closer.” Her 1938 photograph “Death in the Doorway,” of a church entrance in the San Joaquin Valley, reveals a blanketed corpse that someone, probably unable to afford a burial, has deposited. Evans would never have gone there.

In turn, Lange was revered by the documentary photographers who followed her. The greatest of them, Robert Frank, paid her direct homage in “The Americans,” shooting the New Mexico highway that Lange had memorialized in “An American Exodus” from the same vantage point.

But photography was heading off in a different direction. A year after his Lange exhibition, Szarkowski mounted “New Documents,” which introduced a younger generation of American photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Speaking to me in 2003, he explained that these photographers were “rejecting Dorothea’s attitude” that “documentary photography was supposed to do some good” and instead using the camera “to explore their own experience and their own life and not to persuade somebody else what to do or what to work for.”

One happy consequence of our dismal political moment is a rediscovery of Lange. In 2018, a major exhibition from her archive was staged at the Barbican Center in London and the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Perhaps now younger photographers will be inspired to pick up her banner. The need is all too apparent. Where is the photographer of cleareyed empathy and consummate artistry to depict the disquiet, hopelessness and desperate fortitude that riddle the American body politic of today? Who will bring us our “Migrant Mother”?

Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures: Through May 9 at the Museum of Modern Art,

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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