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The Political Lens of Dorothea Lange and Vanessa Winship

At the Barbican, a double bill of two great photographers reveals radically different approaches to social documentary 

Stark as a ribcage stripped of flesh. Sculpted, knuckled and fierce. The images on the walls don’t wash over you, so much as punch you in the face. It’s astonishing to think that ‘Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing’ is the first UK retrospective of one of the world’s most influential photojournalists (and, in 1952, co-founder of the magazine Aperture). 

Best known for her work during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Lange’s iconic portrait Migrant Mother (Nipomo, California) (1936) – singled out from a series of seven other photographs of the destitute field labourer Florence Owens Thompson and her children, that are given their own room in this exhibition – stands as a microcosm of her body of work, which spans 46 years. The dignity and power of Owens Thompson is the same dignity and power Lange afforded all of her subjects, from the hungry and unemployed migrant workers of the Dust Bowl, to the labourers of the Deep South and the Japanese Americans who were interned at Manzanar, California during World War II. 

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Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936. Courtesy: The Oakland Museum of California, Oakland

Armed with her medium format camera (not the easiest object to wield, considering its heft and weight) Lange – who was born in 1895 – began her career in 1919, taking studio portraits of San Francisco’s well-heeled. Fourteen years later, she took to the streets to shoot the increasing numbers of disenfranchised men and women she saw drifting past her window. White Angel Breadline, San Francisco (1933), for example, is a study of a single man hunched up against a barrier at a soup kitchen, empty tin cup balanced in front of him, his back turned against the crowd; Lange has captured not only the appalling realities of loss and social isolation, but also the psychological estrangement of such a predicament.

Other photographs in the exhibition – which compromises 15 series of work from early studio portraits beginning in 1919 to ‘Death of a Valley’ (1956–57) chronicling the US Bureau of Reclamation’s flooding of California’s Berryessa Valley to create the Monticello Dam – are equally forceful, be they of eroded landscapes or the exhausted processions of people moving across them, their worldly possessions strapped to the rooves and boots of clapped out cars and trucks. Lange, who was employed intermittently during the 1930s by the Resettlement Administration (later to become known as the Farm Security Administration or FSA) made it a priority to record and thereby campaign for the ‘Okies’ – a derogative name for refugees from the Midwest – who were often seen as idle wasters. As such, Lange’s was a new documentary sensibility, one that put people living at the very edge of existence, slap-bang centre stage. An empty shack is stranded in the middle of a dirt field in Tractored OutChildress County, Texas (1938) while Woman of the High Plains(Nettie Featherston), Texas Panhandle (1938) evokes the gaunt angularity of a portrait by Amedeo Modigliani. One of Featherston’s emaciated arms juts outwards as she places her hand on her forehead, while the other points down, as hard as an arrowhead. ‘How can we go when we ain’t got no place to go to?’ reads the caption beneath a photograph of a dust-ridden man and his young child. ‘We’re getting along as good as us draggin’ around people can expect – if you call it a livin’ reads another taken from the same series, ‘An American Exodus’ (1934–39).

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Vanessa Winship, Untitled (from the series Sweet Nothings School Girls of Eastern Anatolia) 2007. Courtesy: Vanessa Winship

Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, 1933. Courtesy: The Oakland Museum of California, Oakland

‘The photograph tells the story,’ Lange says in Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightening (2014), a documentary made by her granddaughter. ‘But,’ she continues, ‘the captions extend and enrich the story.’ It is this intense dedication to the minutiae of each of her subjects’ living and working conditions that makes this body of work so devastating.

By contrast, the contemporary British photographer Vanessa Winship’s ‘And Time Folds’ – the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the UK – takes a radically different approach to documenting geopolitical landscapes. (Both exhibitions, which run concurrently, are part of the Barbican’s ‘The Art of Change’ season, which explores how artists ‘respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape’.) On view are around 150 photographs from the past 20 or so years, including a new, eponymous series. Winship – who lived and worked for over a decade in the Balkans, Turkey and the Causacus, and who has also shot photos in the Midwest of the US – won the Henri Cartier-Bresson award for photography in 2011; she is, like Lange, drawn towards people on the edge – of geographical, political, physical or mental states. Here, however, the edges are more oblique. This is underscored in two separate bodies of work: ‘Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction’ (2002–06) and ‘Imagined States and Desires: A Balkan Journey’ (1999–2003) in which the photographs, far from the pounding reality of Lange, reflect strange, nowhere lands.  

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Vanessa Winship, Untitled (from the series Sweet Nothings School Girls of Eastern Anatolia) 2007. Courtesy: Vanessa Winship

At its best, this produces some beguiling photographs that echo the mood of films by Krzysztof Kieślowskiand Andrei Tarkovsky. But it can also result in work that is both distant and distancing. It’s here that the influence of the left-wing artist and theorist Victor Burgin – Winship’s former teacher at the Polytechnic of Central London – runs like a doctrine through her work. Burgin, whose book Thinking Photography (1982) prompted debate about the veracity of the photographer’s lens, distrusts conventional commentaries, which suggest that only one truth is at play. It’s a legitimate claim, but its opposite, as revealed by Winship – who rarely titles a photograph, often preferring to use excerpts from literature that add a passionate lyricism to her war-torn landscapes and melancholy portraits – also has its pitfalls. 

For example, an untitled, undated photograph of a young boy riding a donkey inside a derelict building features walls that have been sprayed with graffiti: one from the Kosovo Liberation Army, one the opposing Serbian Chetnik nationalist symbol in Serbian Cyrillic. But, were it not for the Barbican’s introductory piece on Winship that helpfully translates these obscure acronyms, the in-between spaces – and the political realities – Winship immerses herself in are difficult to access.

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Vanessa Winship, Untitled (from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction), 2002–06. Courtesy: Vanessa Winship

Elsewhere – in photographs of ripples on water, an empty pier, burnt out cars and abandoned gravestones – Winship’s work veers towards cliché. The exception to this is an extraordinary series ‘Sweet Nothings’ (2007). The artist photographed, with almost prison-like regularity, Turkish girls in their school uniforms: their legs set a few inches apart, their arms by their sides. But Winship’s focus on the ways in which each of the girls has modified her uniform – either by embroidering it with flowers or by pinning small objects to it – reveals not only a wonderful individuality, but also a deeply affecting commonality. 

However, given that the title of Winship’s exhibition is ‘And Time Folds’, it’s perhaps ironic that the idea is best served by Lange, whose images of the disenfranchised and alienated recall the images coming out of Trump’s America and the dire situation of refugees around the globe. In this context Lange is the blast, Winship the echo.

Dorothea Lange / Vanessa Winship: A Photography Double Bill’ is on view at The Barbican, London, until 2 September. 

Main image: Dorothea Lange, Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. Courtesy: Dorothea Lange

Shelley Klein is a writer based in London, UK

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