The Dorothea Lange Digital Archive: Explore 600+ Photographs by the Influential Photographer (Plus Negatives, Contact Sheets & More)

Short­ly before her death in 1965, one of the New Deal’s most famous pho­tog­ra­phers, Dorothea Lange, spoke at UC Berke­ley. “Some­one showed me pho­tos of migrant farm­work­ers they had just tak­en,” she said. “They look just like what I made in the ‘30s.” We can see the same con­di­tions Lange doc­u­ment­ed almost 60 years lat­er, from the pover­ty of the Depres­sion to the intern­ment and demo­niza­tion of immi­grants. Only the cloth­ing and the archi­tec­ture has changed. “Her work could not be more rel­e­vant to what’s hap­pen­ing today,” says Lange biog­ra­ph­er Lin­da Gor­don.

As an Amer­i­can, it can feel as if the coun­try is stuck in arrest­ed devel­op­ment, unable to imag­ine a future that isn’t a retread of the past. Yet activists, his­to­ri­ans, and ther­a­pists seem to agree: in order to move for­ward, we have to go back—to an hon­est account­ing of how Amer­i­cans have suf­fered and suf­fered unequal­ly from eco­nom­ic hard­ship and oppres­sion. These were Lange’s great themes: pover­ty and inequal­i­ty, and she “believed in the pow­er of pho­tog­ra­phy to make change,” says Erin O’Toole, asso­ciate cura­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy at the San Fran­cis­co Muse­um of Mod­ern Art

Among famous Bay Area col­leagues like Ansel Adams and Edward West­on, Lange is unique in that “her archive and all that mate­r­i­al,” says O’Toole, “stayed in the Bay Area,” held in the pos­ses­sion of the Oak­land Muse­um of Cal­i­for­nia. Now, more than 600 high-res­o­lu­tion scans are avail­able online at the OMCA’s new Dorothea Lange Dig­i­tal Archive, which also “con­tains con­tact sheets, film neg­a­tives and links relat­ed to mate­ri­als as addi­tion­al resources for the many cura­tors, schol­ars and gen­er­al audi­ences access­ing Lange’s body of work,” Emi­ly Mendel writes at The Oak­land­side

The dig­i­tal archive will like­ly expand in com­ing years as the dig­i­ti­za­tion process—funded by a grant from the Hen­ry Luce Foun­da­tion—con­tin­ues. The phys­i­cal archive is vast, includ­ing some “40,000 neg­a­tives and 6,000 prints, plus oth­er mem­o­ra­bil­ia.” These were inac­ces­si­ble to any­one who couldn’t make the “huge trek to OMCA,” Lange’s god­daugh­ter Eliz­a­beth Partridge—author of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Light­ning (2013)—remarks. The project is “the most impor­tant thing,” says Par­tridge, “that has hap­pened to her work since it was giv­en to the muse­um decades ago” by her sec­ond hus­band Paul Tay­lor. 

The online archive-slash-exhib­it divides Lange’s work in four sec­tions: “The Depres­sion,” “World War II at Home,” “Post-War Projects,” and “Ear­ly Work/Personal Work.” The first of these con­tains some of her most famous pho­tographs, includ­ing ver­sions and adap­ta­tions of Migrant Moth­er, the posed por­trait of Flo­rence Thomp­son that “became a famous sym­bol of white moth­er­hood” (though Thomp­son was Native Amer­i­can) and “moved many Amer­i­cans to sup­port relief efforts.” We can see how the icon­ic pho­to was tak­en up and used by the Cuban jour­nal Bohemia, the Black Pan­ther Par­ty news­pa­per, and The Nation, who imag­ined Thomp­son in 2005 as a Wal­mart employ­ee.

In the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry are Lange’s pho­tographs of Japan­ese intern­ment camps, unseen until rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly. “When she final­ly gave these pho­tos to the Army who hired her,” Gor­don notes, “they fired her and impound­ed the pho­tos.” Lange’s skilled por­trai­ture, her uncan­ny abil­i­ty to human­ize and uni­ver­sal­ize her sub­jects, could not suit the pur­pos­es of the U.S. mil­i­tary. “She used pho­tog­ra­phy,” O’Toole says, “as a tool to uncov­er injus­tices, dis­crim­i­na­tion, to call atten­tion to pover­ty, the destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment, immi­gra­tion…. The protests that are hap­pen­ing today would be some­thing she’d be pho­tograph­ing in the streets.”

Maybe in a dig­i­tal age, when we are over­whelmed by visu­al stim­uli, pho­tog­ra­phy has lost much of the influ­ence it once had. But Lange’s images still inspire equal amounts of com­pas­sion and curios­i­ty. As Amer­i­cans con­tend with the very same issues, we could do with a lot more of both. Enter the Dorothea Lange Dig­i­tal Archive here

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Moth­er, Per­haps the Most Icon­ic Pho­to in Amer­i­can His­to­ry

478 Dorothea Lange Pho­tographs Poignant­ly Doc­u­ment the Intern­ment of the Japan­ese Dur­ing WWII

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • james says:

    I wish to send the url link for this web­page: The Dorothea Lange Dig­i­tal Archive: Explore 600+ Pho­tographs by the Influ­en­tial Pho­tog­ra­ph­er (Plus Neg­a­tives, Con­tact Sheets & More); how­ev­er, I can­not find the URL.

    Please advise.

    Thank you

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