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Dorothea Lange at the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art

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The Social Lens: Photographs by Dorothea Lange and Her Contemporaries

August 22 — October 7

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965), Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940, gelatin silver print, 20 x 23 ½ inches, Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg © Estate of Dorothea Lange

University of Richmond Museums presents The Social Lens: Photographs by Dorothea Lange and Her Contemporaries on view in the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art from August 22 to October 7, 2012. Influential photographer Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965), helped establish the visual and cultural history of Depression-era America in the 1920s and 1930s with her iconic photographs documenting rural conditions, migrant workers, suffering families, and ravaged landscapes. The exhibition includes 30 of Lange’s strikingly empathetic photographs along with the work of other important socially conscious photographers of the period, such as Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, and Ben Shahn.  In conjunction with The Social Lens, UR Downtown is presenting the exhibition The Spirit of Virginia: Photographs from the 1939 New York World’s Fair on view from September 7 to October 26, 2012 in the Wilton Companies Gallery, UR Downtown, 626 East Broad Street, Richmond.

Growing up in the early twentieth century, Lange had experienced adversity early in life.  At the age of 7 she was stricken with polio which left her with a life-long limp, and at the age 12 her father disappeared leaving the family impoverished. As a young woman, she began attending courses at Columbia University, New York, including a photography class taught by Clarence White, a well-known American photographer and founding member of the Photo-Secession movement. By 1918 she moved to San Francisco where she started a thriving portrait studio that catered to the city’s professional class for more than a decade.  In 1929 the market crashed and Lange turned her attention to documentary photography and photojournalism. She began working for the federal government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) and found her niche in chronicling the many faces of Depression-era America—young and old, urban and rural, native-born and immigrant—as they dealt with unprecedented hardship.

Lange described the difficulty of her job as a documentary photographer: “You force yourself to watch and wait. You accept all the discomfort and the disharmony. Being out of your depth is a very uncomfortable thing. You force yourself onto strange streets, among strangers. It may be very hot. It may be painfully cold. It may be sandy and windy and you say, What am I doing here? What drives me to do this hard thing?”

After World War II, Lange was the first woman photographer awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, helped found Aperture magazine, and was honored with a career retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. Most importantly, she raised public awareness of the need for federal assistance around the country and her photographs helped to convince Congress to provide funding.

The exhibition includes the photograph Migrant Mother (1936), an emblematic image that came to personify pride and resilience in the face of abject poverty in 1930s America. In Lange’s notes, she wrote “Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother, age thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp, Nipomo, California, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Of the 2,500 people in this camp, most of them were destitute.”

Also featured is White Angel Breadline (1933), considered one of Lange’s greatest artistic achievements and her first Depression photograph. The photograph depicts a hungry crowd waiting in line for bread in San Francisco not far from Lange’s studio. The breadline was sponsored by a wealthy San Francisco matron known as the “White Angel.” Migratory Cotton Picker (1940), taken in Eloy, Arizona, embodied the suffering endured by those fortunate enough to find work. The struggle to put in a day’s labor for a small wage is evident in the dust on the picker’s dry hands and the sheen of sweat on his lined forehead.

All works in the exhibition are from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. The exhibition is organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions and coordinated at the Harnett Museum of Art by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions, University Museums.  The exhibition and programs are made possible in part with the support of the University’s Cultural Affairs Committee and funds from the Louis S. Booth Arts Fund.

In conjunction with The Social Lens, UR Downtown presents The Spirit of Virginia: Photographs from the 1939 New York World’s Fair in the Wilton Companies Gallery, September 7 through October 26, 2012.  The exhibition features a selection of Depression-era photographs of Richmond and surrounding rural areas from the Library of Virginia’s 1939 New York World’s Fair photograph collection. The exhibition was curated by Hayley Harrington, ’12, art history major, University of Richmond.

Image and text courtesy of University of Richmond: Museums