More relevant than ever, the work of documentary photographer Dorothea Lange can be now explored online through the Oakland Museum of California’s newly launched digital archive. The comprehensive collection includes Lange's most iconic images, negatives, field notes about her subjects, and personal objects. Known for her empathetic portraits that captured the experience of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, Lange dedicated her work to shedding light on important social issues and injustices.
Poverty and racial marginalization, internment camps, and life during wartime — these are among the most famous themes documentary photographer Dorothea Lange chronicled in her groundbreaking 20th century career.
From her iconic images of migrant farmworkers in the 1930s to her photographs showing Japanese Americans in government-enforced “relocation centers” during the 1940s, Lange wasn’t afraid of shining light on America’s darker realities. As the country continues to grapple with similar struggles, the time feels right to revisit Lange’s work in a new online archive that debuted earlier this month from the Oakland Museum of California.
Drew Johnson, the museum’s curator of photography and visual culture, says that even in Lange’s own lifetime, her work was constantly being rediscovered as the same social issues persisted.
“Lange gave a wonderful oral history to UC Berkeley before she passed,” Johnson recalls of the artist, who died in 1965. “She said, ‘Someone showed me photos of migrant farmworkers they had just taken. They look just like what I made in the ’30s.'”
Erin O’Toole, the Baker Street Foundation associate curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, calls Lange “one of the most important and best-known photographers ever to make her home in Bay Area — and that’s saying a lot.” She names Carleton Watkins and Lange’s peers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston as other notable Bay Area photographers, but says that “what’s unique is her archive and all that material stayed in the Bay Area. That is not the case with Adams or Weston and many other Bay Area photographers.”
The archive has been in the possession of OMCA since Lange’s death, but it was recently digitized thanks to a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.