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OMCA exhibition looks at WWII-era San Francisco through Dorothea Lange’s lens

By Erika Milvy

Dorothea Lange needs no introduction: Her iconic photographs of weary migrants in the Dust Bowl are as familiar to us as the Mona Lisa. But a new exhibit on the artist at Oakland Museum of California sees her turn the lens away from the Midwest and onto the World War II–era Bay Area.

“Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing” was curated with an eye to the cultural impact of her work on the major social issues of the 20th century. Historically illuminating and incredibly moving, the exhibition portrays the Bay Area’s most vulnerable communities in the 1930s and ’40s—indigent rural farmers, migratory workers, relocated refugees and interned Japanese-Americans—as they tackle a racist and xenophobic world. Captions explain, often in Lange’s own words, the backstories of the  photographs.

Kaiser Shipyards
Photograph: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Oakland Museum of California

In one particularly powerful shot, an African-American female welder evokes Rosie the Riveter as she looks into the sunlight during a break at the Richmond Shipyards (also home to the original Rosie). Another shows a mob of frustrated men at the White Angel Breadline in San Francisco.

The wing on Japanese internment is particularly resonant. In the photograph One Nation, Indivisible, San Francisco (1942), Japanese-American schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the flag. Adjacent is an original bulletin announcing the relocation and internment of “all persons of Japanese ancestry” in San Francisco, followed by a photo of a Japanese-American man and his three sons, suitcases in hand, waiting on the steps of their Victorian for the evacuation buses. In a letter to Ansel Adams, Lange wrote, “I fear the intolerance and prejudice is constantly growing. We have a disease. It’s Jap-baiting and hatred.”

Photograph: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Oakland Museum of California

It’s hard not to see connections to contemporary issues and the current political landscape, and the exhibit itself encourages such comparisons. Lange’s long-lasting effect on photography can be seen in a series of works from subsequent artists who focus on homelessness, income inequality and immigration in modern-day San Francisco. Janet Delaney, whose project “South of Market” showcases newly displaced San Franciscans, is one of the contemporary photographers who represents Lange’s legacy. She explains, “Lange could make beautiful photographs of difficult subjects. That beauty makes you want to look and look again until you see the complexity of the situations she documented.”

One Nation, Indivisible, San Francisco
Photograph: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Oakland Museum of California

“Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing” is at Oakland Museum of California through Aug 27 ( $15.95.

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