One byproduct of museums’ closure during the COVID-19 pandemic is that some exhibits have extended their running time by dint of their moving online. Case in point: The Museum of Modern Art’s Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures exhibit, which opened on February 9, was set to close on May 9. As of this writing, though, it’s still online, which is how I finally caught up with it towards the end of last month. And thank goodness it’s still available to view. As the death of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis has not only renewed the intensity of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also led to calls for a rethinking of the whole idea of policing—requests that are being answered by some city governments—the exhibit carries a fresh relevance that makes it as essential as ever.
At the very least, the Dorothea Lange exhibit offers us an opportunity to contemplate the power of images to effect social change. Indeed, that’s a significant legacy of Lange’s most famous photograph, “Migrant Mother” from 1936: an image that so acutely captured the emotional toll of being out of work during the Great Depression that it not only became an iconic representation of that era, but also led the U.S. government to send 20,000 pounds food to the Nipomo, California, migrant worker campsite in which the photo’s subject, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family were based. Similarly, if it hadn’t been for images and videos captured at the moment, the deaths of not only George Floyd, but also Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and countless other Black people might not have led to the protests that have ensued all over the world.
MoMA’s exhibit gives us a fuller sense of Lange’s engagement with the broader world that she captured with such empathy and beauty. In 1942, she was at the forefront of documenting the effects of the American shame that was the Japanese internment camps in San Francisco, with this photograph, in particular, offering a chilling portrait of a Japanese man being dehumanized with a simple tag on his jacket. During and after the Depression, Lange remained engaged in documenting the plight of African-Americans in our society. There’s “Plantation Overseer and His Field Hands, Mississippi Delta” from 1936, a vivid visual rendering of oppressive power dynamics, in which a white plantation owner’s slaves are being dwarfed by the white man’s exceptionally self-assured pose. And in 1957, Lange took a series of photographs in the Alameda County Courthouse in California, including this particularly poignant portrait of the defendant in a pose of despair.
Through her work, Dorothea Lange proved the potential of photography to put sobering human faces on social inequities, that otherwise, depending on one’s position in society, might seem all too real or all too abstract. That legacy is imbued throughout the mid-20th century’s civil rights movement — photography, both still images and motion pictures, laid bare and showed the world how racism manifested itself down South. No one could deny the impact of seeing the image of white women shouting viciously at Black teenagers as they were escorted into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957; or of white police officers hosing down nonviolent Black protestors throughout the ’60s.
And now, in the 21st century, with technology affording anyone an amateur photographer’s license, images have become more critical than ever in shining a light on injustices in the world. Alert citizens with smartphone cameras have helped uncover the racism and militarization that has led to our current reckoning of the policing institution, dredging up what was previously hidden from public view. The lightning speed of social media platforms has brought to this kind of image-based activism an immediacy that Lange could not have at her disposal in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. It may be true that an over-saturation of images is a marker of the millennial generation, denoting an unfortunate focus on appearances above all else (witness the rise of the “Instagram influencer,” for instance). But just as Lange proved decades ago with her photographs, the images that are produced during this current societal unrest demonstrate their import and strength as a powerful vehicle for genuine, demonstrable change.