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July 29, 2017
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Five Questions with Drew Johnson

Our curator of photography shares the behind-the-scenes story

By OMCA Staff

Did you know that the Oakland Museum of California is home to photographer Dorothea Lange’s entire personal archive? That’s 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes, and memorabilia from one of the greatest American photographers, preserved and stored right here in Oakland. In fact, our current exhibition Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is a celebration of the museum’s acquisition of the collection fifty years ago.

That means OMCA has a little extra to offer when it comes to telling the story of the artist and her work. Not only does Politics of Seeing feature prints from Lange’s negatives you’ve never seen elsewhere, the exhibit also reveals new insights into how the artist worked from highlighting her extensive (and meticulously captured!) field notes to unveiling exactly how she cropped famous shots.

This is the story about Dorothea Lange that Drew Johnson, Curator of Photography and Visual Culture, has been waiting to tell after decades of his work with Lange’s archive. We asked Drew to share what it was like to curate this exhibit.

In 1966–67, the Oakland Museum of California received Lange’s personal archive as a gift from the artist and her dear friend, the sociologist Paul S. Taylor (who worked closely with Lange). And that was before we even opened our doors in 1969! How did that happen? Did Lange herself choose OMCA?

OMCA’s founding Curator of Photography, Therese Heyman, brought the Lange collection here. She always told me that Dorothea and Paul were impressed with the idea of what was to become the Oakland Museum of California. They liked the fact that it was local, since Dorothea spent her entire career in the Bay Area, and they liked the idea that the new museum would have a California focus. They also appreciated that it would be a “people’s museum,” one that would make Lange’s photographs and papers available to everybody, not just scholars and researchers. When Dorothea passed away in 1965, Paul took over working with Therese to place the collection here.

We always have a small bay of OMCA’s Gallery of California Art dedicated to her work, but it had been twenty years since the last special exhibition of the collection, which had been on the centenary of her birth in 1995. We started thinking about a new Lange exhibition for the fiftieth anniversary about five years ago; it seemed to be time for a new look at her art and activism, and to remind people of the treasure hidden in our collection. Through exhibits like Politics of Seeing, we’re able to honor the significance of Lange and Taylor’s donation and, in this particular exhibit, we’ve been able to emphasize the social justice focus and local aspects of her career in ways other institutions might not.

What has working on this exhibition meant to you personally?

The Lange archive is probably the most frequently visited and researched of all collections at OMCA. I’ve worked with the Lange archive for more than two decades, but my role was mostly in the capacity of making it available to outsider researchers, scholars, filmmakers, and historians. Politics of Seeing offered me the opportunity to take a deep dive into the collection on my own for the first time, giving an eye to presenting her genius to our visitors in a new way.

How does having access to Lange’s archive change what you see and can share with viewers about how she worked as a photographer?

There are a few “never-seen-before” prints in the exhibition, as well as “outtakes,” proof-sheets, alternate croppings, and associated memorabilia to provide context. We’ve also made an effort to reunite her photos with the extended captions Lange so painstakingly wrote while in the field; these notes often include exact quotes of the people she photographed, written verbatim in their own idiom. This trait of Lange’s to take detailed notes in itself is revealing of her technique. Although it was important sociological information, more importantly it also helped Lange establish trust with people she photographed.

When Lange began practicing photography in the early twentieth century, cameras were a rarity! Now, photography is everywhere with digital photography and smartphones. What lessons from Lange do you think we should keep in mind about the power of the camera?

Lange’s greatest lesson is that a photographer documenting social conditions must approach people with dignity and respect, with an honest effort to understand their situation and to capture it truthfully. As she said, “All my photographs are collaborations—the result of [the subjects’] thinking as well as mine.” Lange’s work is the perfect balance of art and information. Her photographs are often beautiful, and sometimes shocking, but not in a way that overwhelms the situation or content she’s documenting. I’m sorry to say a lot of documentary photographers have not learned this lesson or followed her example in this.

I think the fact that most of us now carry cameras everywhere we go involves a certain obligation and responsibility to use photography in responsible, socially-informed, and generous ways. Lange has many lessons for us about the power and responsibility of using a camera to capture the world and to influence attitudes, and Politics of Seeing opens up those topics.
 



Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through August 27, 2017.