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There’s more to Dorothea Lange than ‘Migrant Mother’

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The wife of a defendant is featured in Dorothea Lange’s Oakland-set 1957 series about the life of the Alameda County public defender. (Courtesy Oakland Museum of California/Gift of Paul S. Taylor)

Photographer Dorothea Lange is famous for her vivid, evocative portraits of Dust Bowl migrant workers, but her work encompassed much more.

Her dedication to social justice is evident throughout “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing,” an exhibition of more than 100 images on view at the Oakland Museum of California and recently extended through Aug. 27.

The show of works from the museum’s permanent collection, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of Lange’s gift of her personal archive (25,000 negatives and 6,000 prints) to the institution, also includes memorabilia, proof sheets and interesting commentary about her subjects.

Initially, there wasn’t much to the story behind “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, 1936” — the ubiquitous image of the farm worker that since has adorned everything from a postage stamp to key chains to the cell phone case on view in the exhibit.

At the time, Lange didn’t get the woman’s name, but put in her notes that she was a pea picker, had seven hungry children and was 32.

The photo was one of six taken in 10 minutes.

It wasn’t until decades later that the woman’s name, Florence Thompson, became known, and all wasn’t for the best. A note in the display reads, “Fame caused distress and raised ethical concerns of turning individuals into symbols.”

The exhibition, which is divided into three sections (Great Depression, World War II and Postwar California), also briefly highlights her early life.

Born in New Jersey and a survivor of polio, she walked with a limp, always finding empathy, even when she ran an upscale portrait studio in San Francisco in the 1920s (not long after her arrival on the West Coast).

In the 1930s, her interest in social issues became evident, as seen in photos of bread lines and labor demonstrations in The City.

Soon after, she worked with University of California social scientist Paul Taylor, an expert in farm labor (whom she married), and together they famously documented migrants for the Farm Security Administration.

Equally evocative images emerged during World War II; Lange’s pictures of Japanese-Americans under internment are touching, particularly “One Nation Indivisible,” an interestingly cropped shot of Asian fifth graders reciting the pledge of allegiance at Raphael Weill Elementary School in San Francisco.

The show also includes an April 1942 letter in which Lange seeks permission to photograph the concentration camp (euphemistically called “war relocation center”) camp at Manzanar.

Some lesser known pictures taken in California after the war are equally captivating, including images from her “Death of a Valley” series, depicting how residents from Monticello were displaced as the building of Lake Berryessa got underway.

Lange took some happy photos, too. A series on workers at Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond reveals a place with good paying jobs where everyone was welcome.

Other impressive East Bay images include a section dedicated to a 1957 project for Life magazine in which Lange followed a case in the life of Alameda County public defender Martin Pulich “seeking justice,” from images of an officer’s badge and police wagon to the jail cell, to the defendant, the attorney and the jury in court.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Aug. 27
Admission: $20 general; $15 seniors and students; $11 ages 9 to 17; free for children 8 and under; discounts after 5 p.m. Fridays
Contact: (510) 318-8453, www.museumca.org

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