The state of the human condition has long been a fascination for artists throughout the ages. Whether it has been the opulence of the rich, the beauty of youth or the grace of the body in motion, art has long documented culture, the state of the world and how it has changed over time.
Photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) began her career capturing portraits of the professional and moneyed class. Where she truly found her calling was turning her focus upon the causalities of the Great Depression (1929-1939).
Lange’s empathetic images of migrant workers, suffering families and tortured landscapes seared the faces of the Depression into America’s consciousness. Her work raised public awareness of the dire need for federal assistance around the country and helped convince Congress to provide it through the programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“Dorothea Lange’s America” brings the work of Lange and several other socially conscious photographers of the era to the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery on the Lebanon Valley College campus. This exhibition is as much about the striking images, as it is about their important place in history. The work of Lange and her compatriots truly made a difference in bringing to the attention of those in power the crisis happening around them resulting in effective social change.
It is key to note that Lange did not seek to inspire pity for her subjects, instead she documented the resilience of those experiencing unprecedented hardship, with strength and dignity. She also showed that the hard times of the Great Depression affected the young and old, urban and rural, native-born and immigrant without prejudice.
Lange’s working method was gentle, open and personal, engaging her subjects and winning their consent to be photographed. Her iconic image “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” shows a pensive woman looking off into the distance worrying for her seven hungry children as she cradles a sleeping toddler. Her image captures the quiet determination of the woman in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Moreover, there is a sense of empathy rather than pity that is a hallmark of Lange’s work. “Migrant Mother” ultimately became a key piece in the struggle to secure financial relief for families such as the one featured.
Another key theme of the images captured by Lange is the concept of work, either in action or the absence of it. Lange’s “White Angel Breadline” shows a crowd of unemployed men, queued up in a line for food relief. All of the men, except for one, have their backs toward the camera. His singular face gazes outward, appearing to be lonely despite being in a crowd.
The overarching nature of the Great Depression affected all segments of society, and here Lange is able to capture its effects upon the invisible and the marginalized. From capturing unemployed men (“Unemployed Men on Howard Street, San Francisco”), immigrant workers in fields (“Filipinos Cutting Lettuce, Salinas, California”), African-American women (“Woman in Trailer Camp, California”), to abandoned bodies left at rural churches (“Death in the Doorway, Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California”), Lange brought to light the great hardships that the Great Depression wrought upon the entire nation with arresting imagery that called a nation to action.
While best known for her works of the Great Depression era, Lange continued her photographic career with the founding of Aperture Magazine in 1952, as well as exploring the changes in post-World War II America. “Near Milpitas, California” shows the emerging suburbanization process, while “US Highway 40, California” captures human tragedy brought about by the new car culture. Lange was always interested in the America around her.
Also included in “Dorothea Lange’s America” are examples of her contemporaries that likewise sought to document the extreme environments and conditions of the Great Depression. Works such as Walker Evans’ “South Street, New York City” and Marion Post Walcott’s “Migrant Vegetable pickers in line to be paid, near Homestead, Florida,” share both aesthetic sensibilities and sympathies. These artists provide a companion to Lange’s work and demonstrate the widespread trend of Social Documentary Photography in the era.
“Dorothea Lange’s America” includes culturally-celebrated works that truly changed the course of history in the United States. It is a reminder of the important place the arts can play in society to not only provide joy and beauty to the world but also to help change the ills and right the wrongs that befall the vulnerable and marginalized.
“Dorothea Lange’s America” is on display until March 24 at the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery on Lebanon Valley College campus, West Church Street and North White Oak Street, Annville. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Gallery Hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, 1 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and by appointment for groups. Contact the gallery at 717-867-6445 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent over 30 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. They have been writing about the local art scene for six years. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.