In the age of Instagram we are all photographers. And the way we see the world has been transformed by other photographers past and present.

Dorothea Lange must be counted amongst those who expanded our understanding of how economic and political change – and the state – have affected countless people.

She is best-known for her images of depression-era United States. Her Migrant Mother inspired writer John Steinbeck’s equally famous book The Grapes of Wrath.

Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

That amazing picture of a gaunt woman, two of her children hiding their faces, her baby barely glimpsed, has been compared to an old-master Madonna. Once seen, never forgotten. It can be now be viewed in the context of Lange’s career at London’s Barbican Art Gallery.

Not only can we appreciate Lange as an outstanding master of photo-reportage, but her images of Depression era, wartime and post-war United States touch nerves that uncomfortably close to the present.

Her images of people often have an intimacy which takes many beyond simple documentation. The effects of light, shade and distance give them a poetic feeling.

And indeed, as a young photographer with her own studio in San Francisco – surely one of the first women to achieve this – she worked in the turn-of-the century international style known as Pictorialism.  Portraits and nature were often blurred, hazy and infused with painterly, romantic qualities. A big contrast with what was to come.

As the Great Depression in the US transformed the roaring 1920s into poverty for millions, Lange was hired by California State’s Emergency Relief Administration to place on record the conditions of migrant workers. She was hired as a field photographer but placed on the payroll as a typist, no doubt because she was a woman.

She was on and off the US government’s Resettlement Agency (RA) payroll between 1935-9 working throughout the Midwest, West and California, eventually co-producing a book called American Exodus – a record of human erosion. The title says it all.

Dorothea Lange Migrants walking

Dorothea Lange
Family walking on highway – five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938. Library of Congress

Lange captured the desperation of working class families, forced to abandon their farms in the Dustbowl. But hers is not an anthropological study – she combines artistry with compassion, making these images strike at the heart in the most compelling of ways.

Lange was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941. But Pearl Harbour intervened. She was hired to document the US state’s forced removal of Japanese Americans to internment camps on the Pacific Coast. All her prints and negatives were impounded and mostly remained unseen for over 30 years.

Room 6 at the Barbican is devoted to this shocking episode in US war history.

Family of Man, co-selected by Lange

Cover of Family of Man 1955 exhibition which Lange helped select

Flash forward: with Lange’s contacts and help in selecting the 500 photographs in the show, veteran photographic genius, Edward Steichen organised The Family of Man exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955. That show toured the world for eight years, drawing record-breaking numbers – some 9 million people. As a book it has never been out of print.

The way in which The Family of Man portrayed humanity was unforgettable. It was a powerful blast by US and global photographers, as well as the poets and writers whose words were set alongside the photos. It set down a marker for common humanity against racism, inequality, war, McCarthyism, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

Vanessa Winship Untitled from the series she dances on Jackson, 2011-2012 © Vanessa Winship

Vanessa Winship Untitled from the series she dances on Jackson, 2011-2012 © Vanessa Winship

Lange’s  feeling for life continues in a contemporary way by British photographer Vanessa Winship, whose work occupies the upper level at the Barbican. Winship used her prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson Award to capture the people of today’s America, from east to west, following in the footsteps of earlier masters like Lange.

Catch these shows while you can and give yourself enough time. This is a big show. In addition to Lange’s 11 spaces, Winship’s work occupies eight bays upstairs, with photos taken in Turkey, Black Sea, the Balkans and today’s USA  and post-Soviet Georgia.

Dorothea Lange, the Politics of Seeing and Vanessa Winship – And Time Folds – A photography double-bill is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 2 September.

From 16 October 2018 – 27 January 2019 it will be at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

Dorothea Lange: A Life in Pictures


Vanessa Winship: she dances on Jackson

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