Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 100 black and white photographs, hung against white and grey walls in a series of three divided rooms and the entryway on the second floor of the museum. The show was curated by Sarah Hermanson Meister.

The following works are included, as categorized by the titled sections of the exhibition:

Entry

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1940/1965

San Francisco Streets

  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1933, 1933-1934, 1934/1965
  • 2 magazine spreads, 1934

Government Work

  • 17 gelatin silver prints, 1935/1965, 1937, c1937/1965, 1938, 1938/1949, 1938/c1958, 1938/1965, 1939/1949, 1939/1965
  • 1 video screen with spreads from 1935 report w/ photographs, captions

Land of the Free

  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1936, 1936/1965, 1936-1937/1965, 1937/1949
  • 1 book spread, 1938

An American Exodus

  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1936/1949, 1937/1965, 1938/1949, 1938/c1958, 1938/1965
  • 1 book spread, 1939

Pictures of Words

  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1937, 1938, 1938/1965, 1939/1965, 1942/1965, 1951/1965, 1952/1965

12 Million Black Voices

  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1936, 1936/1965, 1937, 1939
  • 1 book spread, 1941

World War II

  • 10 gelatin silver prints, 1942, 1942/1965, c1943/1965, 1944/1965

LIFE

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1953, 1953/c1958, 1953/1965, 1954/1965
  • 8 magazine spreads, 1954, 1955

The Family of Man

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1935/1953, 1936/1955, 1942/1965, 1944/1965, 1952, 1952/1965, 1955
  • 1 book spread, 1955

KQED Documentary

  • 1 16mm black and white film, 1960

Public Defender

  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1955-1957/1965

Migrant Mother/Popular Photography

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1936/1949
  • 1 gelatin silver print with gouache, ink, and grease pencil, 1936
  • 2 magazine spreads, 1952, 1960
  • 2 pigmented inkjet prints, 2019, 2020

Late Work

  • 15 gelatin silver prints, 1952/1965, 1954/c1958, 1955/1965, 1956/c1958, 1956/1965, c1957/1965, 1957/1965, 19, 1960/1965, 1963/1965, 1964/1965

Works by Sam Contis

  • 3 photogravures, 2019

(Installation shots below.)

A catalog of the exhibition has also been published by the museum (here). Hardcover, 176 pages, with 152 illustrations. With an essay by Sarah Hermanson Meister and contributions by Julie Ault, Kimberly Juanita Brown, River Encalada Bullock, Sam Contis, Jennifer A. Greenhill, Lauren Kroiz, Sally Mann, Sandra S. Phillips, Wendy Red Star, Christina Sharpe, Robert Slifkin, Rebecca Solnit, and Tess Taylor. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: The entry walls of the Dorothea Lange exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art recreate the graphic endpapers from An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, the 1939 photobook by Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor that documented the lives of migrant workers, sharecroppers, and other displaced refugees in post Great Depression America. What stands out about these eye-catching words is that they aren’t historical analysis, detailed footnotes, or even attentive description; instead they are quotes drawn directly from the voices of the people Lange was photographing. Reading the words, it’s like we’ve joined the conversation, the authentic human immediacy of the sentences hitting like a ton of bricks:

“Makin a livin even this kind of livin beats starvin to death. Back there we’d like to starve to death.”

“Livin a bum’s life soon makes a bum out of you. You get started and you can’t stop.”

“Brother, hits pick seventy-five cent cotton or starve.” 

“This is a hard life to swallow but I just couldn’t sit back there and look to someone to feed us.”

Lange understood the power of these words. Throughout her career, texts, notes, captions, and words played an integral part in the presentation of her photographs and the larger stories they told. Many of her best known images were first seen in photobooks, government-funded studies, magazine photo essays, and other publications, and were then further reproduced and circulated, and she took care in how her images and words were put together. “All photographs … can be fortified by words,” she said, and she was more committed to this combination than we might have realized.

MoMA last held a retrospective of Lange’s work in 1966, just three months after she died; she had been intimately involved with planning the show with then-new-curator John Szarkowski, but she never actually had the chance to see it installed. In a sense, this exhibit updates that original effort, while also pushing deeper into this idea of Lange’s interest in how words and pictures could work together.

The challenge of putting together a physical installation of photographs that highlights their connection to texts of various kinds is a difficult one, and one that few museum shows successfully conquer – it’s simply a confounding design struggle to figure out how to make vitrines of book spreads or video monitors of flippable pages feel as engaging as framed photographic prints, and teasing out close connections and resonant interactions between them is even harder. Regular wall labels, however eloquently written, don’t really get the job done (as most visitors don’t peer in to read them, especially when the exhibit is crowded), and large print pull quotes or captions can help, but they are hard to integrate into the hanging of the pictures as anything more robust than wordy decoration.

This exhibit can therefore be seen in two ways. On one hand, it is a superlative survey of Lange’s work – not a retrospective, as it leaves out both her early work and only touches very briefly on some of her 1950s projects, but a top quality survey that covers everything any normal visitor needs to know about Lange. As a show, it is tight, well-edited, and thoughtfully organized, providing a sampler of key images and critical ideas, particularly Lange’s work from the late 1930s. While a retrospective effort could easily have gone 5, 10, 15, or even 20 pictures deeper in many of the discrete bodies or work or categories (Lange was that consistently excellent as an image maker), this show finds a smart balance between breadth and depth, taking us swiftly but systematically through Lange’s wider career.

On the other, the show doesn’t quite deliver on its promise of educating us about Lange’s belief in the integration of words and text. It certainly tries, particularly by putting books in flat wall mounted vitrines so they hang next to the photographs, but as installed, the message is largely too diffuse to really grapple with, and the photographs themselves are too strong to be distracted much by accompanying texts in small print. There is one specific selection of images that centers on words and lettering (like Lange’s image of two men walking up a lonely road, flanked by a billboard urging them to Relax and Next Time Try the Train) and there is useful explanatory background provided for each section of the show, but the thesis that Lange (and her collaborators) deliberately and consistently combined images and text in innovative ways isn’t really proven. For the vast majority of visitors, this will look and feel like a well-crafted but largely standard survey.

The accompanying catalog does a much better job of making the curatorial line of thinking clearer and more complete. While of course it reproduces the photographs with attention to quality, it also shows us many more spreads from photobooks, articles, handbooks, and other printed materials where Lange controlled the placement of words and pictures. In several publications, she used both titles and captions (that she painstakingly wrote) along with direct quotes, which were then arranged into harmony with the photographs. In Land of the Free (which she made with poet Archibald MacLeish), the images and poetry are given equal weight, with sparse words on one side of a spread and a single image on the other. In 12 Million Black Voices, the words also lean toward stark poetry, with one series of spreads reading “Our lives are walled with cotton”, “We plow and plant cotton”, “We chop cotton”, and “We pick cotton” underneath Lange’s images of those tasks. Her captions accompany her photo essays on Mormon towns and Irish country people for LIFE, she argues with Edward Steichen (in a letter) about the words used to categorize subjects for The Family of Man exhibition, and her images following the day-to-day life of a public defender were ultimately paired with explanatory notes on how the legal system functions. In each case, the words enrich the understanding and impact of the photographs significantly.

In the catalog, curator Sarah Hermanson Meister has also enlisted a selection of esteemed writers, artists, and academics to write their own words about individual images in the exhibition flow, thereby adding another layer of interpretation and expression via words. While the three images by Sam Contis re-thinking imagery from Lange’s archive seem oddly bolted-on at the end of the physical exhibition (particularly since there is no explanation provided for the presence), these text-based interventions and responses in the catalog are effective in pushing us to acknowledge alternate lines of thinking inspired by Lange’s images. Wendy Red Star brings a Native American perspective to the environmental devastation in Lange’s tractored out furrows, Rebecca Solnit sees the generations of lives represented by a single outstretched hand, and Sally Mann hears the heartbeat of despair in Lange’s courthouse defendant. All of this textual engagement, especially when paired with Lange’s original captions, is richly interwoven – it is shame that very little of this re-layering made it into the physical exhibition.

A small dose of Lange’s passion for captions comes through in the compelling clip from a KQED documentary on Lange, being shown in a corner of the exhibition space. In it, Lange sits at her desk and wrangles over captions, digs through extensive boxes of note cards, spends time matching negatives and words, and more generally recounts the stories and drivers behind her pictures – all of what Meister is getting at can be found in watching Lange at work. What also comes through is the force of Lange’s personality – she is compassionate, committed, wise, warm, a bit fragile (due to chronic health problems) but undeterred, and resolutely smart and opinionated; she undeniably belongs on the short list of exceptional humans who also happened to be master photographers. (And if you think the large photographs of tree branches at the end of Lange’s life seem random, the film will clarify how those trees, and their location at her home, fit into her sense of place and family.)

Even though so many of Lange’s subjects were downtrodden, struggling, helpless, alienated, dislocated, and even defeated, there is something powerfully uplifting, morally honest, and fundamentally empathetic about the way Lange chose to see them. While MoMA could not have known that this exhibit would ultimately be closed due to the spread of the coronavirus, there is something entirely fitting about Lange standing tall and providing a sense of dogged human optimism at such a time of crisis. As we fall into our own unknowns, let’s hope that there is a new Dorothea Lange out there, ready with her camera and as much steadfast compassion as the original, to document our collective trials to come.

Collector’s POV: The market for Dorothea Lange’s photographs is both mature and robust, with plenty of material (both vintage and later) finding its way to auction every year. Prices range from a few thousand dollars (for lesser known images or later prints) to nearly $1M, with vintage icons like Migrant Mother and White Angel Bread Line routinely fetching six figures in public sales. Quality mid-range vintage material can generally be found in the five figure range.

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Read more about: Dorothea Lange, Sam Contis, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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