Toward the end of her life, Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) reflected, “All photographs—not only those that are so called 'documentary’...can be fortified by words.” A committed social observer, Lange paid sharp attention to the human condition, conveying stories of everyday life through her photographs and the voices they drew in. Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, the first major MoMA exhibition of Lange’s in 50 years, brings iconic works from the collection together with less seen photographs—from early street photography to projects on criminal justice reform. The work’s complex relationships to words show Lange’s interest in art’s power to deliver public awareness and to connect to intimate narratives in the world.
In her landmark 1939 photobook An American Exodus—a central focus of the show—Lange experiments with combining words and pictures to convey the human impact of Dust Bowl migration. Conceived in collaboration with her husband, agricultural economist Paul Taylor, the book weaves together field notes, folk song lyrics, newspaper excerpts, and observations from contemporary sociologists. These are accompanied by a chorus of first-person quotations from the sharecroppers, displaced families, and migrant workers at the center of her pictures. Presenting Lange’s work in its diverse contexts—photobooks, Depression-era government reports, newspapers, magazines, poems—along with the voices of contemporary artists, writers, and thinkers, the exhibition offers a more nuanced understanding of Lange’s vocation, and new means for considering words and pictures today.