Dorothea Lange: ‘Politics of Seeing’ review

Art, Photography
5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
(3user reviews)
Dorothea Lange: ‘Politics of Seeing’ review
Dorothea Lange, 'Migrant Mother', Copyright the Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

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.

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This exhibition is shown together with the Vanessa Winship’s show. They are both marvellous exhibitions, especially Dorothea Lange’s, but seeing both together is quite tiresome and they don’t really relate... But costing £13.50 to get in, I don’t think anyone will choose to see them separately. It’s a pity; they both deserve all our attention and energy. I’m glad I started with Lange’s as it is more impressive, and the texts should be read carefully. The pictures do the talk by themselves but I always find enriching to know a little more about it. It’s truly an US History lesson, and visually mesmerising.


The Barbican have once again put on an absolutely stunning show.

Dorothea Lange is a hugely influential photographer, and someone I've been a fan of for a long time, so I was very excited to see her collected work. Politics of Seeing did not disappoint.

The exhibition takes you through the evolution of her photography, reflecting of the huge upheavals occurring in American society during her life, and the amount of work on show is enough for you to get a really clear sense of both what concerned her politically, and how she wished to work artistically. There is, of course, a small room dedicated to the famous 'Migrant Mother' portrait, which proved to be really interesting as it contextualises the image, rather than leaving it as a single, isolated frame.

I completely recommend Politics of Seeing: if you're interested in photography or American history you cannot miss it.


This is a stunning and heartbreaking exhibition of what America was and may soon become again (I'm American), with Lange's powerful and mesmerising photographs not just of 1930s Depression migrants to California but the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the long-term and widespread discrimination against African-Americans. The exhibition prominently features the famous 'Madonna and children' photographs of a migrant mother, but even the more simple photographs of ordinary people just trying to live their lives while trapped in poverty are emotionally devastating. The end of the exhibition features an old and grainy film of an interview with Lange, in which she discusses the political and social forces that compelled her to move from portrait photography in the 1920s to documenting the horrors of a government that didn't seem to care. This is an exhibition that will haunt you and should be required viewing for all major US politicians.