Dorothea Lange’s indelible mark on the world of photography is undeniable. Her piercing and deeply humanistic portraits from the 20th century are being celebrated in a comprehensive exhibition, “Dorothea Lange: Seeing People“, at the National Gallery of Art.
This exhibit, which runs from November 5, 2023, to March 31, 2024, is a comprehensive exploration of Lange’s unique approach to portrait photography. It traces her evolution, beginning from her early days as a studio photographer in San Francisco in the 1910s, to her iconic images capturing the heart-wrenching realities of the Great Depression, and finally, to her transformative documentation of marginalized communities during the 1950s and 60s.
Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art, praised Lange’s unparalleled capacity to tell stories through images. “Merging her skills as a portrait artist, a social documentary photographer, and a storyteller, she helped redefine photography through images that emphasize social issues,” Feldman remarked.
The exhibition is segmented into six thematic sections, each reflecting a distinct period or focus in Lange’s career. A highlight of the collection are the portraits of Indigenous communities from the 1920s and early 1930s, taken during her travels through the American Southwest. Equally compelling are her depictions of the Japanese-American internment during World War II, an unflinching look at a dark chapter in American history.
While Lange’s work is deeply rooted in the past, its themes are strikingly contemporary. Her lens often captured issues of economic disparity, racism, and migration, concerns that remain pertinent today. Her portrayal of the incarcerated Japanese Americans at Manzanar, for instance, underscores the societal prejudices of her era. Lange’s commitment to illuminating these realities cemented her legacy in documentary photography.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a 208-page illustrated volume has been released. Published by the National Gallery of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the book delves into Lange’s unique approach to portraiture and her overarching influence on the realm of documentary photography.
As visitors walk through the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, they will be invited not just to observe, but to feel and reflect. Lange’s work, in its raw beauty and brutal honesty, offers a timely reminder of the shared human experience and the power of empathy.
Dorothea Lange’s “Seeing People” runs from November 5, 2023, to March 31, 2024 featuring some 100 photographs.