In Pictures

Dorothea Lange: Piercing portraits from US history

Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, c.1935 Image copyright The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum
Image caption Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, circa 1935
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The Barbican Art Gallery in London is staging the first UK survey of the American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), one of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century.

The exhibition includes Lange's Farm Security Administration work (1935-1939) that captured the devastating impact of the Great Depression on the American population.

Working in urban and rural contexts across America and beyond, Lange focused her lens on human suffering and hardship to create compassionate and piercing portraits of people and places in the hope of affecting or influencing social and political reform.

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Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 Image copyright The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum
Image caption Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
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During the Great Depression, in the early 1930s, Lange felt increasingly compelled to document the changes visible on the streets of San Francisco. Taking her camera out of the studio, she captured street demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

Lange's iconic photograph Migrant Mother became a symbol of the Great Depression, alongside her images of vernacular architecture and landscapes.

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White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 Image copyright The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum
Image caption White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933
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Lange went on to work with the newly established historical division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the government agency tasked with the promotion of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal programme.

The FSA employed a number of photographers to document living conditions across America during the Great Depression:

  • urban poverty in San Francisco
  • tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms and mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas
  • the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West
  • the tragic conditions of migrant workers and camps across California
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Family walking on highway - five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938 Image copyright Library of Congress
Image caption Family walking on highway - five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938
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Cars on the Road, August 1936 Image copyright Library of Congress
Image caption Cars on the Road, August 1936
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Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 Image copyright The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum
Image caption Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940
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Drought Refugees, c.1935 Image copyright The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum
Image caption Drought Refugees, circa 1935
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Lange was commissioned by the War Relocation Authority to photograph the internment of more than 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent, following the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Lange's critical perspective on this little discussed chapter in US history meant her photographs remained unpublished during the War, stored at the National Archives in Washington.

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Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, 3 July, 1942 Image copyright The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum
Image caption Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, 3 July, 1942
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Flag of allegiance pledge Image copyright Courtesy National Archives
Image caption San Francisco, California. Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centres where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education, 1942
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Evacuee stands by her baggage Image copyright Courtesy National Archives
Image caption Centerville, California. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942
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College students Image copyright Courtesy National Archives
Image caption Sacramento, California. College students of Japanese ancestry who have been evacuated from Sacramento to the Assembly Centre, 1942
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An evacuee is shown in the lath house sorting seedlings for transplanting Image copyright Courtesy National Archives
Image caption Manzanar Relocation Centre, Manzanar, California. An evacuee is shown in the lath house sorting seedlings for transplanting. These plants are year-old seedlings from the Salinas Experiment Station, 1942
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Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is part of The Art of Change season at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, and runs from 22 June to 2 September 2018.