You can see why the Barbican is running these shows of Dorothea Lange and Vanessa Winship together. There’s plenty of overlap in their work: dislocation, displacement, the way that women, children, buildings, landscapes and even cars reflect societal collapse. But I would seriously advise that you buy your ticket, check out one of them, then go and play crazy golf with a few beers or something before you come back and tackle the other. They’re both pretty heavy.
Dorothea Lange is revered as a giant of twentieth-century documentary photography. Her ‘Migrant Mother’ – an image she took in 1936 of one of the 300,000 Americans who fled the starvation and poverty of the drought-stricken Midwest – is so celebrated that it gets its own little sort-of-chapel here. A woman stares bleakly into the distance, apparently removed from her plight, her family and the act of being photographed. It’s an image of loss: loss of property, prospects, hope and self. Lange called the effect ‘human erosion’, mirroring the over-cultivated farmland soil that had blown away, taking these people’s bit of the American Dream with it.
It’s only part of the story, though. Although the Depression and the Dustbowl spurred Lange to give up taking arty society portraits and hit the road, the rest of her work – less often seen – extrapolates from that experience of the USA on its knees. She shoots the dire racial poverty of the Deep South that existed before, during and after the Midwest droughts. She shoots the inhuman internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. She shoots the postwar destruction of her beloved California by unscrupulous developers and automobile cultists. Everywhere, she sees death: a corpse abandoned in a church doorway; graves dug up prior to a valley community being flooded to supply water to a West Coast megalopolis. Her vision of America is personal yet always slightly apart. She is another migrant mother.
By comparison, Vanessa Winship’s work takes a bit of time to develop. Whether the poetical-obscurist captioning appeals to you or not, there is a mystical vibe to her images, especially those of the post-communist Balkan states. Children and old men play amid overblown Soviet memorials; a boy sits astride a horse inside a concrete bunker. Unlike in Lange’s work, people seem to be reasserting themselves over the landscape, but they trail legacies of oppression: these are also eroded humans, still half-wedded to a dead regime. It’s Winship’s 2011 series on the USA, though, ‘She Dances on Jackson’, that is most successful, and which brings her back full circle to Lange. Her young Americans – some bullish, some self-conscious, some blank – might not be literally starving to death like Lange’s displaced sharecroppers, but their future seems no more positive: as rootless as the dead harvests of the Dustbowl, three-quarters of a century later.