How to see without a camera

Skid Row, Howard Street, San Francisco, California, 1937
Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing at The Barbican, London, reviewed by Andy Stowe

The clothes and vehicles are a bit different, but in many ways the subjects of Dorothea Lange’s photos taken in the 1930s and 40s of children in detention camps and homeless rough sleepers are startlingly contemporary.  A major retrospective of her work is running in London’s Barbican Centre until September 2nd and the images are as much an indictment of our era as she intended them to be of hers.

Lange had a successful career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco until the Great Depression threw millions out of work. She stopped taking pictures of the rich and the poor became her subjects.

One of many arresting images in the exhibition is “Skid Row, Howard Street, San Francisco, California, 1937” which shows two men sleeping in the street. Almost a century later the same scene is commonplace all over London and in virtually every British city. Walking to the exhibition from Liverpool Street, where London’s financial district begins, you can see people sleeping in shop doorways surrounded by the offices where bonuses of hundreds of thousands of pounds are commonplace.  No leap of imagination will be needed from the viewer to sense Lange’s indignation.

In 1935, she began work for the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency created to tackle rural poverty. Lange’s photos of the dirt-poor rural families driven off the land by big farmers and tractors were art, accusation and propaganda.

Migrant mother is the picture that made her famous, an unforgettable portrait of a prematurely aged woman and her child. It’s an inversion of the Virgin Mary with Jesus. Every line on the woman’s face conveys the misery and hunger her family has endured. Lange later said the woman “seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

Her images from that period will be reasonably familiar. The works which will be new to many are the photos she took while working for War Relocation Authority (WRA) during World War II. This was another government agency but its role was to supervise the internment camps in which were imprisoned people of Japanese ancestry following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her fury shines through. Juxtaposed with images of children and parents are pictures of the racist propaganda used to encourage the war effort. Prison camps for the innocent and racism are not recent American inventions. The images were so distasteful to the WRA and the US Army that they were impounded.

It took a world war to really pull the US economy out of the doldrums and get millions of the unemployed back into work, something Lange shows in her shots of women shipyard workers. Her art may not have changed the world, though it has shaped how we visualise that period of American history.

This long, meditative exhibition is incredibly political, sadly beautiful and quite unmissable.

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