Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing

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

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

It wouldn't be exaggerated to say I came to this show for this photo. Dorothea Lange’s single most iconic image of the Migrant Mother is one out of seven negatives she made on a trip to a migratory pea pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California in spring 1936. The Migrant Mother has since become a symbol of American endurance in the face of unemployment, hunger and homelessness. What struck me most when seeing the piece in person was that her eyes, each wrinkle and detail of fabrics speak for itself - they were yearning for hope.

Lange shot the sequence as she was on her way back from a month-long trip photographing in central California on commission from the government, and nearly missed the opportunity. Tired and eager to get home, she had initially driven past a signpost to the camp until something compelled her to turn around. In the camp, she encountered Florence Owens Thompson and her children, who were among 2,500 pea pickers out of work and living in desperate conditions, in their lean-to tent. Lange set up her bulky 4×5 camera. She approached the family group from a distance, gradually moving in closer to produce the close-up shot she wanted.

It was an emotional roller coaster while walking through the show, looking at photographs taken in 1930s, have we ever reflect on the past? With the current American immigration situation, refugee crisis in Syria to Brexit, the faces we see on the news today weren't that far off from what we saw here in this exhibition - it makes you wonder, what have we learnt and what more can be done? 

1. White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California 2. Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, July 3, 1942 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California 3. Sacramento, California. College students of Japanese ancestry who have been evacuated from Sacramento to the Assembly Center, 1942. 

'Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing and Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds' runs through to Sep 2 at Barbican Art Gallery, find out more here

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