WE OFTEN HEAR that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange didn’t necessarily believe that.
Many of Lange’s most iconic images—they document the Dust Bowl, the bleak migration to California, the hardscrabble agricultural existence of the Deep South in the 1930s—are close-up images of men and women, their hard Depression lives chiseled into their faces. But Lange, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, also paid attention to the words that trimmed the lives of those people, overtly political signs, casual commercial ones, and sometimes her intentional juxtapositions of the fraught times and the glossy world being promised to Americans.
An expansive look at her work, now featured in an online exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, uses words to illuminate many of the photos. These are not necessarily Lange’s words; as she traveled the country for federal agencies looking to document the hardship of farmers and rural communities, she talked to the tenant farmers, the migrants, the displaced, the desperate, and recorded what they had to say. These quotes are important contributions to our understanding of an era that in some ways suggests our own, with a mostly unseen underbelly of society generally eclipsed by the gloss of America’s “official” (aspirational, perhaps) image.
The MoMA exhibit has made deft use of Lange’s notes as well as of her photos that contain words. Online visitors can “roam” the rooms of the exhibit and click through the vast majority of the images shown on the wall. Enlarged, they offer a searing story in black-and-white—and in Black and White.