In a couple of days, on September 18th, there is a new exhibit of the photos of Dorothea Lange opening at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. If you don’t know the name, you still probably are familiar with her images which include the iconic photo shown here on the right, taken in 1936 while she was working for the Farm Security Administration. Migrant Mother is one of those images that seem to capture with a glimpse all of the sorrow and hardship of those affected in the Depression-era Dust Bowl, in this case a mother forced to leave her home and wander in search of work that will provide for her children.
Her worry is etched on her face. While John Steinbeck‘s book The Grapes of Wrath brought the plight of these displaced farmers of that time to the light, it was Lange’s imagery that gave them a sense of humanity and dignity that reached out and created an empathy with the viewer. It was powerful, plain and simple.
Some of her most powerful work came from an assignment she took with the War Relocation Authority during WW II, when she was hired to document the interment of Japanese-American citizens. Lange captured the humanity of these prisoners of race at a time when even the liberal and progressive elements in this country maintained silence over the shameful treatment of these citizens. The photos were censored by the army during the war and were never seen until they were quietly moved to the National Archives, almost 50 years later.
Lange lived from 1895 until 1965, surviving the polio as a child which left her with a distinct limp for the rest of her life. But neither the limp nor the chronic ulcers that plagued her for the last decades of her life could slow her down. She sought to affect social change with her images, to give voice to the disenfranchised and down-trodden.
So, if you’re in the Cooperstown area, I highly recommend stopping in at the Fenimore Art Museum to see this work by this giant of American photography. I know that I am looking forward to seeing it.