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‘Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing’ at the Barbican Art Gallery

Arts editor, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou, reflects on the timely retrospective of the late American photographer, Dorothea Lange, recently shown at the Barbican Art Gallery.

‘To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable’ the late photographer, Dorothea Lange, opined in an interview before her death in 1965. ‘I have only…just touched it’, she concluded. And ‘touch it’ she did, as is evident throughout the Barbican Art Gallery’s retrospective, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. Bringing together iconographic images from her Depression-era repertoire with those less known from the post-war years of her career, Politics of Seeing explores the ‘visual life’ of Lange and her subjects. Taking its cue from her astute and sensitive style, the Barbican astutely and sensitively leads us through her early life as an established and successful portrait photographer in San Francisco; via her career-defining and innovative documentary images of Dustbowl migrants; and finally ends with her later meditations on urban America, rural Ireland and the dramatically changing landscape of Monticello. Despite the enormity of the undertaking, Lange undoubtedly attained, ‘touched’, grappled with and lived life through the lens. But her vision, in all its black and white graininess, has come to stand in for those individuals and minority groups who were deeply affected by the political and socio-economic issues facing America in the 30s and 40s. It is this politicised female gaze – this necessary, though problematic, ‘politics of seeing’ – that we’re asked to confront when viewing her photography.

Like many of her contemporaries, Lange’s ‘visual life’ began in a commercial studio. Arriving on the West Coast in 1918, she deferred plans to travel the world and instead opened a portrait studio in the high-end district of San Francisco’s Bay Area. The transition from traveller to independent proprietor was achieved in just over a year and it speaks volumes of her characteristic conscientiousness and charm. Soon, her studio became the centre for San Francisco’s artistic and social elite. If by day she commanded the ‘cream of the trade’, by night some of American photography’s greats were frequenting her ‘clubbish’ soirees. Anne Brigman, Roi George Partridge, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz – all were part of the West Coast art scene; and all were said to have met, talked and flirted at Lange’s studio. It is here, in the comfortable and coterie-like surroundings of her portrait studio, that the Barbican opens the retrospective. Green papered walls set the scene and tone of an early twentieth-century parlour, providing a stark contrast to the white, sparse, barn-like atmosphere of the main galleries. But it’s Lange’s slick and stylish images that convey the beginning of her career best: the prominent artists, the near-celebrity acquaintances, the female socialites and upper-class clientele are all in view like they would have been in the 1920s. A profile shot of the famous printmaker Roi George Partridge hangs on one wall, while on the other a more intimate, albeit blurred, close-up of Lange’s own mother can be seen. In this milieu, culture, particularly the culture of photography, temporarily transcends and unites all. Hence another tender and beautifully composed portrait of Lange’s long-term friend, the socialite Edythe Katten, placed alongside that of Partridge.

Dorothea Lange, Roi Partridge Portrait, San Francisco, c. 1925. © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.

The portrait Untitled (Edythe Katten) (January 1933) is indicative of the freedoms enjoyed by women and artists in 20s and 30s America. Sporting a bowl cut and an off the shoulder bandeau-style dress, Katten openly displays her sexual allure and femininity, encapsulating the bohemian chic of her circle. With her body directly facing the camera and her face turned away, Katten at once invites and rejects the viewer’s gaze. Simultaneously playful and classical, Lange’s portrait delicately frames her subject’s youthful beauty without giving all away. Katten’s sharp, almost androgynous profile contrasts with the soft feminising exposure on her upper body; again, Lange’s sophisticated experimentation and treatment of photographic portraiture parallels the sharp shift in female and bodily representation. And Katten’s slight smile says it all. Are we witnessing a visual unveiling, a “de-domesticating” portrait of a lady? Is Lange softening the parameters of respectable photographic portraiture, yet at the same time inverting the dream-like blur of early-mid-century pictorialism? Katten’s fashionably cut hair, handsomely outlined features and averted gaze look towards a harder, more defined future for the self-representation of women.

Dorothea Lange, Untitled (Edythe Katten), January 1933.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.

We witness similar liberties taken with several other studio portraits shown in the first room. Untitled (Woman in Dark Hat) (1919) merges a late nineteenth-century pictorial aesthetic with a modernist emphasis on the subjectivity of the sitter. Shrouded in darkness, both the rim of the titular hat and the collar of the sitter’s coat are only just visible. At the centre of the portrait is the luminous face of a young woman. This tonal contrast is Lange and her sitter having a laugh, albeit an artistically accomplished one. The sitter’s body may be obscured and muffled up with heavy clothing, but the wry smile – pre-emptive of that found in the portrait of Katten – speaks of secret liberty. What it reminds one of (though unintentionally on the part of Lange) is Frans Hals’ seventeenth-century oil painting, The Laughing Cavalier (1624). Like Hals’ Cavalier, Lange’s female subject sits sideways, but looks outward at the viewer; both sitters are trussed-up in obstructive garb, but manage to flash the onlooker a winning, knowing smile. And the comparison with Hals’ portrait isn’t so anachronistic when one considers the painterliness and parenthetical title of Lange’s own work, or the undeniable charisma exuding from both. Like Hals’ portrait, Lange’s photograph alludes to the performativity of artistic representation (and in the case of Untitled (Woman in Dark Hat) that of gender). Both subtly sustain the tension between the restriction of dress and the freedom of expression. Thus early works like Untitled (Woman in Dark Hat) confidently assert Lange’s own freedom of expression – as an artist-photographer, independent business woman, wife and mother – and reminds us of the innovation behind her ‘visual life’.

Works like Untitled (Edythe Katten) and Untitled (Woman in Dark Hat) reveal how Lange collaborates with her sitter to renegotiate spatial, compositional and developmental rules. This collaborative renegotiation is what renders works such as Untitled (Mother and Child, San Francisco) (1928) and Untitled (Nitza Vemelli) (1921) visual successes. In Untitled (Mother and Child, San Francisco), the domestic scene is obscured, plunged into darkness or perhaps removed altogether by pictorialist techniques, leaving the relationship between mother and child to occupy the foreground. The unclothed child looks directly at the viewer, whilst the stylishly dressed mother twists away, her head completely absorbed in the dark behind her. Lange’s presence and touch remain present in the child’s attentive stare, the mother’s absent gaze. This is a masterclass of contrasting textures and tones, mood and movement. Here, the domestic “virtues” of motherhood are symbolically, compositionally and spatially challenged; they’re returned to and questioned in the mother’s stance, the child’s fleshliness. And in an earlier photograph, Untitled (Nitza Vemelli), domestic space and studio conventions give way to a partially-clad female dancer, whose contracted motion is hazily held by Lange’s camera.

Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 © The Dorothea LangeCollection, the Oakland Museum of California.

Partnerships of this kind (between photographer and sitter, then viewer and subject) were part of an unspoken creed for Lange. Established in the studio, this ethic and process of collaboration found new political force when taken outside into the streets, the fields and on the road during the initial stages of her documentary work. Lange didn’t forsake her flair for portraiture when taking her camera on the road, but reapplied it and used her ability to connect with those she met. Armed with a 4 x 5 Autographic, her portraitist eye and an affective approach to all she photographed, she stepped away from the comfort of commercial studio practise and took to documenting the widespread effects of the Great Depression. Starting in San Francisco, she photographed the growing homelessness, urban poverty and unrest of the early 1930s. When from her window she spied an endless flow of jobless men, Lange stepped out and responded with the now famous image, White Angel Bread Line (San Francisco, 1933). This photograph shows an elderly man leaning over a wooden fence, whilst a group of men queue for food. Fenced in behind the backs of the other queuers and the erected wooden beams in the foreground, this elderly man appears more isolated than the rest. With his hat tipped over his eyes, his arms wrapped around an empty can and his palms clasped, we are presented with a portrait of desolation, destitution and the tired resignation that forcedly accompanies both when one has been stripped of their livelihood. Lange’s lens compassionately lingers on this lone figure; she sees him when others don’t, can’t and refuse to. She captures his plight, holds him in her photographic witnessing, without crossing the line.

White Angel Bread Line is one of the first in a long line of social documentary images that Lange is now known for. Wanting to photograph ‘the people that touched [her] life’, Lange started to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) headed by Roy Stryker, who used her photography to record the plight of migrant farm workers, push for reform and counter conservative attacks of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme. Working with her second husband, the social scientist Paul S. Taylor, Lange became one of the first in a long line of esteemed American photographers to document the lives of those most affected by the Wall Street Crash, the drought and dust storms in the Midwest, and technological advancement in agriculture. Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott and Gordon Parks were also employed by the FSA and it is their images that have helped shaped the public imaginary around these times in American history. They gave us the faces and stories of those who suffered in the 30s and 40s, but none more so than Lange. Her images of men sleeping rough on San Francisco’s sidewalks, of displaced tenant farmers in Texas, of migrant families lugging their belongings in wheelbarrows, of Filipino lettuce-pickers stooping over crops in the Salinas Valley and many more are the quintessential works of this era. Lange’s photographs achieve what Parks’ did when depicting the lives of African Americans in the 40s and late 60s: they support the subject in in the midst of his or her photographic retelling. Despite the photographer’s name typed in the credits, it’s the sitter who assumes both ownership over the image and authority over the view. This is not to say that Lange’s eye doesn’t permeate the photograph; rather, her eyes meet those of her subjects, exchange at a human level and feelingly frame the individual.

Dorothea Lange,  Family walking on highway – five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938. Library of Congress.

Gestures, in particular, are what personalise Lange’s images. Hands clasped, openly splayed or unconsciously clutching one’s face: all such gestures externalise inner feeling and can aestheticise Lange’s photography. But they also embody personality and approach something akin to what Roland Barthes defined in his later text, Camera Lucida (1981), as the ‘punctum’ of an image: that detail that triggers an emotional pull or keeps the viewer involved with the photograph. Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona (1940) is just such an image that uses gesture to emotionally involve the viewer. A youngish man stares out at us, but you find yourself squinting into his eyes. There is a complicated play of shadow formed by the Arizona sun beating on the back of the cotton picker. What at once bars us from the image and draws us into it, into this subject’s story, are his large hands: one is held in front of his mouth, while the other gently clasps a wooden beam. There’s a sort of palmistry going on here, but not as we know it. We are deterred from going too close, from gleaning too much and yet the openness of his hand reveals all. These are strong hands, worn and wearied by work, coarse from exposure to arid and hot conditions when picking cotton. Intensive labour and little comfort are their lot, his lot. But perhaps they are his pride, his strength, his determination? We get both the Barthean ‘punctum’ – the detail that moves, consumes, enfolds – and the ‘studium’, which Barthes identified as the social historical markers of an image. Again, we have no need to construct a narrative for this subject; it’s all metonymically found and etched onto the body.

Dorothea Lange, Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 ©The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.

Lange took other photographs of hands and feet, legs and arms. Some of these images were close-ups which excluded a subject’s face. When doing so parts of the body became visual synecdoche for the entire person. Looking at these shots from the late 30s, one easily distinguishes a labourer from a land owner: the former often has dirty, course and malnourished limbs, while the latter displays clean smooth hands and has an overfed complacency about him. Well aware of the political power of photography at this time, Lange brought inequality and exploitation to the fore without the need for captions or further text. Images, not statistics were needed to bring home the reality and humanity of the agricultural crisis, as Lange’s husband, Paul Taylor, concluded. Reform started with perceiving injustice; the act of seeing hopefully resulting in change, in humanitarian action on the part of politicians.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936. ©
The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) also employs gesture to emphasize the humanity and human need of the main subject. But the poignancy and power of the photograph is wholly derived from the theme of maternity. Central to the image is the titular mother holding a sleeping infant and flagged by two children. The baby in her arms is blissfully unaware of the dirt on its face, its clothes and its material surroundings. This Madonna-like tableau is perfected by two cherubim-like children, both of whom face the backdrop but are nonetheless an extension of their mother. The child on the right leans on her mother’s shoulder, hungry for protection and assurance; the smaller one on the left rests her head on her mother’s back. Hemmed in by the needs of her children, the mother stares into the distance, her brow furrowed, her slender hand clasping her chin. What is she thinking? ‘Resignation before near-insurmountable circumstances’, some have said; ‘resilience in the midst of adversity’, others argue. Framed by her role as ‘mother’, this adult subject sharply contrasts with Lange’s earlier representations of socialite women. There is no flouting of rules with a sly smile or a provocative flash of the shoulder. This woman is reconciled to being a mother first and a mother only. Yet in context, the role of mother takes on a political aspect of heroic proportions: mother America, who for some (including Lange) was failing its ailing children, but for others was stoically propping them up.

The Barbican Gallery’s exhibition devotes an entire room to Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, such is its importance to Lange’s repertoire. What curators Alona Pardo and Jilke Golbach achieve in this small room is a complete visual and textual summation of the history of Migrant Mother. Other photographs from Lange’s time with Florence Owens Thompson, the eponymous mother, surround several versions of the iconographic one. In one shot, Thompson exhaustedly looks into the lens while breastfeeding her baby, a child that never leaves her lap; in another photo, Lange spies the family from a distance, their sodden lean-to tent providing a dingy backdrop to an already desperate situation. In all of the images, one out of the two small daughters never leaves her mother’s side, and is seen always clinging onto her shoulder and staring, sometimes squinting, suspiciously at the camera. An older daughter appears in one of the shots, no less forlorn than her mother and siblings. Tellingly a large, black suitcase is left slightly open in the foreground of the landscape shots, accentuating the precarity of this family and all migrants in the 30s.

What underscores the vulnerability of this unit is the fact that it consists of women only. Father, husband, brother, the male ‘breadwinner’, the patriarchal safety net is nowhere to be seen. Lange noted in her original caption (omitted from publications which used the photograph) that the family were destitute and had just sold their tent in order to buy food. The mother – her energy, sustenance, resilience and ingenuity – are all they have. She is home and shelter for these children. Lange certainly hones in on this truth and perhaps it rebounds on her own migratory status as a travelling working professional, a mother and a wife. Travelling alone, making arduous road trips to camps across the West in search of such photographic opportunities for the FSA, she had a sense of what it was like to be out in the world earning an independent living as a woman. What is more, the success of Lange’s most famous and reproduced image – possibly the most recognizable photograph in the history of American photography – has been attributed to the female gaze and an ethic of feminizing affectivity – qualities which are somewhat scarce in the work of her famous male contemporary, Walker Evans.

Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California, February 1936, taken by Rondal Partridge. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

The critical response to Lange and her work as compassionate and compassionating is long-standing, despite the reductiveness of this interpretation. What it does highlight, however, is her understanding of Migrant Mother as a collaborative effort. When asked about it during an interview in the 60s, she spoke of this intuitive collaboration between herself and Thompson: ‘She…seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.’ Years later, after being tracked down by Emmet Corrigan, a journalist from a local Californian newspaper, Thompson complained bitterly about the encounter. She spoke of Lange not asking her name and making promises not to publish the pictures. She also expressed anger at having never received any money for the images, despite their ongoing success in the media. Thompson obviously felt that the photograph and the history behind it was far from collaborative. In Lange’s defense, the FSA stipulated that names shouldn’t be noted or accompany photographs taken by their contracted photographers. Similarly, Lange became frustrated with the afterlife of Migrant Mother; not only would the title and captions alternate depending on the article, but Lange had no creative or legal control over the image itself. Since all government-owned imagery of this nature was in the public domain, reproduction of the photograph has remained a constant with no charge attendant on it. This is noticeable in the exhibition’s poster: all over London, the UK and the internet, Migrant Mother has touched the public imaginary once again, but this time she speaks in multiple tongues. She speaks of Lange’s life, of Thompson’s and of those migrants fighting hard to remain in a post-Brexit Britain, in a Trump-led America. Lange’s ‘visual life’ has undeniably touched viewers around the world and it is her optical vantage point, her politics of seeing, that we all need to learn from and adopt.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing was shown at the Barbican Art Gallery from 22nd June to 2nd September, and was part of a photography double bill with Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds, which was held on Level 3 of the gallery until the same date. For more information, click here: