Skip to content

Handle with Care: Working with Lange’s Archive

Housing Dorothea Lange’s entire collection, the Oakland Museum of California gets extra close-up interactions with the art. Two of OMCA’s team played extra hands-on roles in producing never-seen-before prints for Politics of Seeing.  

Having close access to Dorothea Lange’s entire collection, which we house right here at the Oakland Museum of California, gives us an unusual perspective and opportunities for direct interactions with the artist’s work. Two of OMCA’s team members played extra hands-on roles in producing never-seen-before prints and contact sheets on view in Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing.  

Brittany Bradley is our Intellectual Property and Imaging Coordinator who mightily handles the care and cleaning of Lange’s archive, among other collections tasks. Ven Voissey, Graphics and Installation Specialist, is our meticulous maker of printed text and images, including the large-scale photographs you’ll find on the exhibition walls. 

What’s it like to work so closely with an iconic photographer’s collection? For Brittany, it’s business as usual. She handles Lange’s archive on a near-daily basis to help researchers, the public, and other institutions requesting access to the collection.

“A great deal of my job is locating images in this vast collection, including lesser-known works, and digitizing or reproducing it to make it available for publication, exhibitions, and research all over the globe,” Brittany shares. 

For Politics of Seeing, Brittany worked with Lange’s original negatives and contact prints to digitize them in order to print new, larger versions and reproduce rarely-shown materials. Due to the chemical compositions of negatives, prints, and contact sheets, these items are susceptible to the elements. Digitizing them helps reduce future exposure to air, dust, and moisture. 

Brittany comments, “I walk a line of only ‘fixing’ or retouching things that are detrimental to the integrity of the image. I have to make sure I don’t erase evidence of Lange’s own hand or anything important that would jeopardize the historical relevance in the images. The process is both humbling and difficult.”

Next, Brittany handed over the digital versions to Ven. (Some prints also were made by Dickerman Prints in San Francisco.) Ven printed and mounted the 40-plus medium- and large-scale prints mounted on the exhibition walls. Even with digital files, the printing process can involve issues of color consistency that takes a sharp eye to notice and correct effectively. Although working with such large scale prints can be complicated, the larger-than-life results are stunning.

Plus, as Ven observes, this scale shows off Lange’s technique: “I loved getting a chance to examine Lange’s images up close. And getting to see them at such a large scale reveals where her camera was really focused. It’s often not where I expected.”

What caught Brittany’s eye was something less immediately visible. “What can’t be seen from a single photograph is the depth of Lange’s involvement with her subjects. She immersed herself in a moment or with a stranger with such devotion and detail. It’s something you see only when you look at entire rolls and contact sheets.”

Brittany and Ven’s hard work paid off: Politics of Seeing includes contact sheets of entire rolls alongside final Lange’s compositions. Don’t miss the final weeks of this exhibition and your chance to see these rare, behind-the-scenes looks at Lange’s process!

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