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Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing

Best known for her iconic images of migrant farmworkers during the Depression, the Bay Area-based Dorothea Lange also photographed the urban homeless and Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II. Her work further addressed community displacement and the urban criminal justice system, reflecting its racial and class issues.

“Lange was one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century,” says Drew Johnson, OMCA’s curator of photography and visual culture. “Her images have extraordinary beauty, content, empathy, and technique, but the impact of the photos mattered most to her. Lange saw photography, above all, as an art that can reveal truth and create social change.”

OMCA is home to the world’s most important collection of Lange’s photography: her personal archive of more than 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes, and memorabilia. OMCA received the archive as a gift in 1966-67, and a major new exhibition—Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing—celebrates the collection’s 50th anniversary. On view from May 13 to August 13, the exhibition showcases the emotional, inspirational power of Lange’s images of suffering and injustice. It features vintage prints, interactive displays, memorabilia, and high-resolution digital images scanned from original negatives that have never been exhibited before.

The subjects that Lange photographed still have enormous relevance today, according to Johnson. “From immigrants and racism to environmental challenges and gentrification, her work is inspirational to photographers who want to make a difference.” 

Her collaborative approach has also been influential on other artists. “Dorothea Lange always spent time with people—talking with them and writing down their stories verbatim—often before she ever took out her camera.” As a result, Johnson says, “her images reveal the misery of their circumstances, but also a profound sense of strength and dignity. They encourage you to reflect on the specific circumstances of her subjects and connect with them on a basic human level.” Her masterful ability to capture injustice and beauty resonates today, and the exhibition includes images by three contemporary photographers—Ken Light, Janet Delaney, and Jason Jaacks—whose work has been strongly influenced by her techniques. (Watch OMCA’s interviews with Light, Delaney, and Jaacks.)

As Lange put it, “The good photograph is not the object; the consequences of the photograph are the object.” Through her artistry, intimacy, and social consciousness, Dorothea Lange’s powerful vision continues to create awareness and provoke change.

Want more? Watch OMCA’s interviews with contemporary artists about Lange’s legacy.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is on view through August 20, 2017.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Inside Outthe Oakland Museum of California’s Member magazine.