Dorothea Lange Retrospective At NY MOMA Reopens Online : The Picture Show The American photographer intimately documented the upheavals of the Great Depression. Now, amid the upheavals of the coronavirus, Lange's portraits of humanity and adversity still have a lot to say.

'A Community Of Desperation' Finding Sympathy And Solidarity In Dorothea Lange

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Photographer Dorothea Lange had an eye for capturing what was going on around her - the Great Depression, Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Her most famous portrait is of a migrant mother, her face lined with worry. In February, a retrospective of Lange's work opened at New York City's Museum of Modern Art and promptly closed a month later because of the coronavirus. As NPR's Colin Dwyer reports, the exhibition is reopening for one week only, today, online.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: Dorothea Lange's work for the U.S. government took her to Great Depression bread lines and camps of migrant farmworkers. In interviews conducted over 1960 and '61 and preserved by the University of California Berkeley's Oral History Center, Lange said that she didn't set out with much more than her camera.


DOROTHEA LANGE: I just went out just absolutely in the blind, staggering, as something to do. Well, I really kept to it.

DWYER: But she didn't just take pictures; she took notes - lots and lots of notes. Here's Tess Taylor, a poet and occasional NPR contributor reading just a few items from Lange's copious notebooks.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: (Reading) Note to self - possible title, to hold this soil. Note to self - general theme of book, people left stranded by the outwash of industry in America. Note to self - US-99, the splendor and the rest of it.

DWYER: Taylor wrote a book of poems inspired by Lange, some of which were included in the MOMA exhibition. Taylor traveled throughout California, following Lange's path, and says that something unmistakable still shines through in her photographs.

TAYLOR: The restless desire to find a way to document the scope of this crisis but also to make it feel human and to capture it at a human scale.

DWYER: Decades later, a different kind of crisis intruded.

SARAH MEISTER: The installation views are there. The pictures are hanging in the dark. And now it's like, OK, so then what?

DWYER: Sarah Meister is the curator behind the MOMA exhibition. Since the museum is closed indefinitely, she and her colleagues decided to relaunch the exhibition online. And that gave them a chance to reframe Lange's work in light of today's crisis. She points to one piece in particular.

MEISTER: Her photograph from 1938 about unemployment aid beginning - and it's this line of men in hats standing very close together. It's just this very self-enclosed, sad, desperate, plodding, hopeless kind of picture.

DWYER: The echo with today's unemployment figures is inescapable. But in a weird way, it also offers a sense of solidarity across time.

MEISTER: You know, even a community of desperation is still a community.

DWYER: It also communicates some difficult questions.

TAYLOR: What do we owe one another as a form of common dignity? How do we support one another? How is our well-being intimately welded to one another's well-being?

DWYER: That's Tess Taylor again, the poet inspired by Lange's work.

TAYLOR: Those are her questions, and they're also questions that we are feeling very, very sharply right now.

DWYER: Lange's pictures come to mind when Taylor sees the signs now hanging outside the stores in her neighborhood, not too far from where Dorothea Lange herself once lived. And since the photographer is not here to do it, the poet is taking notes for her.

TAYLOR: Closed. Reopening shortly. We're gone now. On intermission. There's one store that says we'll be back tomorrow, but it's had that sign up for six weeks.

DWYER: Taylor doesn't know what she'll do with that list yet; then again, rarely did Lange when she was just starting a project. It was advice she offered young photographers.


LANGE: Don't let that question stop you.

DWYER: Here's Dorothea Lange again from those early '60s interviews.


LANGE: Ways often open that are unpredictable if you pursue it far enough.

DWYER: In other words, just keep your eyes and your heart open - your notebook, too.

Colin Dwyer, NPR News.


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