In 1939, Lange and Taylor published six years’ worth of wanderings in a single photobook. American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion sold poorly; the outbreak of war in Europe had turned the country’s attention from the Depression. But it was nevertheless revolutionary in the way it juxtaposed words (usually quotes recorded by Lange in the field) and photographs (often grouped in provocative symbolic combinations). As its title implies, the book’s argument was both scientific (erosion) and spiritual (exodus). The stripping of the soil by industrial farming had forced farmers and their families to spend years wandering through the deserts of the American Southwest. Nowhere is this tragic result more evident than in Tractored Out, which stands the tradition of American landscape painting and photography on its head by depicting a single boarded-up farmhouse languishing amid a sea of curved rows of exhausted soil. If the American West had once promised life, with flourishing fields for every family, here it’s a grim portrait of death.
Lange wasn’t religious, but as her career continued she increasingly took on the role of a biblical prophet, reminding her country (and especially its business leaders and elected officials) how far short they had fallen of their duty to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Her photographs of written words—especially advertisements—took an increasingly acerbic tone: On the Road to Los Angeles shows two migrant workers walking their suitcases along a dusty highway as a huge billboard, featuring a garish image of a man reclining, urges them to “relax” and “next time try the train!” And Lange’s documentation of racism, both in the Mississippi Delta and in the San Francisco Bay Area, was equally lacerating: Plantation Overseer and His Field Hands shows a heavyset white man with a straw hat and suspenders planting his thick leg on the tail bumper of his car. He looks to the left (Paul Taylor is just barely visible at the far left edge of the frame, engaging him in conversation) as his workers, five black men, look straight into Lange’s lens from behind him, as if acknowledging the man’s grotesque sense of self-importance, and the injustice of the whole situation.
Even more damning are Lange’s photos documenting the internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. By an ironic twist, Lange’s work for the WPA during the Depression helped her secure a contract from the U.S. Army, which hired her to document the supposedly “humane” conditions at the Assembly Center in San Francisco and inside the internment camp at Manzanar. As soon as her new bosses saw the results—anonymous government hands inspecting the tags that Japanese Americans were forced to wear on their coats, frightened Japanese-American children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, whole families in line to board buses and trains—they fired her.
If at the peak of her career Lange had found her voice as a prophet, her final years were more contemplative. She continued producing work oriented toward social and environmental justice: the show includes a few photos from her “Public Defender” project, courtroom shots originally commissioned by Life magazine that were later used to illustrate a legal handbook, Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials; and from “Death of a Valley,” which documented the reservoir construction that flooded the Berryessa Valley in Napa, California, and permanently displaced not only human residents, but an entire ecosystem. These projects aside, Lange took a deeper interest in photographing people and places closer to home. Constantly ill with ulcers in her stomach and pains in her throat (she died of throat cancer in 1965), Lange was drawn to photographing an old oak tree at her home in California. Oak Trunk and Sunlit Oak, both from 1957, stand as self-portraits: the tension between their muscular, sturdy branches, and their delicate, flowing leaves is the same combination of power, beauty, and patient growth that characterized Lange’s life and work.
We could certainly use more of Lange’s moral ferocity today. But what’s really needed is her humility, and her humanism. It’s easy to be angry: at Trump, at the governors, at Amazon and the airlines and the corporations and the Congress that bailed them out (and for that matter, at MoMA itself, whose massive expansion last fall now seems irresponsible, considering this spring’s budget cuts and layoffs). But in the long run, anger alone isn’t a winning political strategy, and it won’t solve the problem of inequality in America. The gift of Lange’s art is to show us that solidarity is rooted in selflessness, which begins not with political programs, or policy platforms, or a sense of one’s own moral and intellectual superiority over one’s political opponents, but with curiosity, and a desire to know (and even love) people different from oneself. Lange’s life of looking at others, especially those harmed by vast systems of injustice, helped her see that victims were more than just their socioeconomic scars. Now, in a time when many have lost their lives and livelihoods, she helps us reimagine a better America, one characterized by resilience, sacrifice, and hope.
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