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An Introduction to Dorothea Lange’s Personal Archive

OMCA Curator Drew Johnson talks about the power of Dorothea Lange’s photography and how her archive came to OMCA.

As the Oakland Museum of California prepares to launch our upcoming Dorothea Lange Digital Archive website, featuring hundreds of negatives, prints, field notes, and more from the world-renowned photographer’s personal archive, we wanted to share how her collection came to OMCA more than 50 years ago, even before the Museum’s opening in 1969. 

To celebrate the groundbreaking work of one of the greatest American photographers, we spoke with OMCA Curator of Photography and Visual Culture Drew Johnson, who has worked with Lange’s collection during his 30 years at OMCA, to learn more about the importance of her personal archive and what Lange’s work means to him.

How did OMCA come to acquire Lange’s collection?

Even in 1965 when Lange passed, she was internationally recognized as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, so there were a lot of institutions after her archives. Prior to Lange’s passing, Therese Heyman, who was the founding Curator of  Photography at OMCA, met with Dorothea Lange and her husband Paul Taylor to talk about where to place Lange’s archive. Therese always said the things that appealed to Lange about her archive coming here was that it was a museum of the people, and Therese pledged the work would be made available to the public. Lange and Taylor were just taken with the potential of what was to be of this new museum, and that it was a California institution. It was kind of a leap of faith in supporting what we were going to become.


What does Dorothea Lange and her body of work mean to you personally?

I’ve always been really inspired on a very emotional level by her work. I was a photography buff as a teenager and collected 19th century photographs, so I was aware of the great figures in photographic history. The power and empathy her photographs had, the way they captured moments in history–I was really startled and pleasantly surprised that my hometown museum held that archive. And I think to this day people are surprised that we’re the keeper of her personal archive. Her photographs tell history in a very personal, powerful way that is startlingly relevant to events that are happening now. 

You look at her photographs and she invites you to connect with the people in them in an intimate, personal way, and you realize the people in them are not that different than you and me. Maybe if circumstances were different, I would be in that situation too. That’s her super power. Lange’s archive is really one of the foundational collections  of this place.


Why is Lange’s work relevant today?

We try to program for social impact at OMCA, and create things that will say something about the world we live in, and that’s what Lange’s work is all about. Her photographs encourage you to make connections with people who are going through stuff that maybe they shouldn’t be going through. Her whole guiding principle was that if you can see an injustice with your own eyes through a photograph, you’re going to be inspired to do something about it. And maybe you can change the world. But you’re not going to do it if you can’t see it, so I’m going to help you see it. She really was trying to motivate people to take action, and that’s what we try to do as well.


Why did OMCA decide to create this website dedicated to Lange’s collection?

The website is just one aspect of the much larger Luce Foundation grant that we are working on to finish cataloging and imaging the archive, because even though we’ve had it for 50 years, we’ve never before had the resources to methodically sit down to make sure that everything was cataloged and imaged. It’ll basically be a standalone website that’s all about the Lange collection. It’ll be around 600 carefully selected photographs from the collection, both from original negatives and also vintage prints that are grouped according to major projects in her life. 

The hope is that people who are interested in learning more about Lange, scholars who are interested in researching her, kids doing school reports, and everyone will be able to come to this one place and see a lot of her photographs, read her own words, and see some of the memorabilia associated with her more famous images.


What do you hope visitors will gain from the new Digital Archive?

I hope they’ll gain appreciation and knowledge for who she was and what she did and what motivated her, and an appreciation for her artistry and commitment. I hope they gain a little more understanding of the power of photography to be persuasive and make you aware of what’s going on in the world. Lange always said “I’m just recording the truth.” The proof of that is the number of photographers she inspired by her example, including ordinary citizens with cell phone cameras capturing the police doing something they’re not supposed to do. And I hope people know her photographs aren’t just period pieces. Yes, they happened 70-80 years ago, but they can really tell us something about today.

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