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'Migrant Mother' photographer's images of oppressed resonate

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/21/2017 By ERIC RISBERG, Associated Press
In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, the iconic photograph Migrant Mother looks out at the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, the iconic photograph Migrant Mother looks out at the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Dorothea Lange was driving by a pea pickers' camp on the California coast when she stumbled across a weary mother and her many children huddled in a lean-to.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a 1942 photograph called Japanese Children with Tags that is in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a 1942 photograph called Japanese Children with Tags that is in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

It was 1936, during the throes of the Great Depression, and Lange took out her camera.

In this 1942 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Shift Change, 3:30 pm, Coming out of Yard 3, Kaiser Shipyards. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP) © The Associated Press In this 1942 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Shift Change, 3:30 pm, Coming out of Yard 3, Kaiser Shipyards. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP)

The image she titled "Migrant Mother" became the late photographer's most famous work, capturing the dirt and despair of that era through the eyes of a 32-year-old woman who had just sold her car tires for food.

In this 1942 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP) © The Associated Press In this 1942 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP)

The photograph, digitally scanned and enlarged, is a dominant feature of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing." The exhibit of 100 of Lange's photographs includes Dust Bowl migrants, Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II, the homeless and postwar urban decline.

In this 1934 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is May Day Listener, San Francisco. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP) © The Associated Press In this 1934 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is May Day Listener, San Francisco. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP)

The show also features the work of three modern photographers — Ken Light, Janet Delaney and Jason Jaacks — who were influenced by Lange's work.

In this 1938 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP) © The Associated Press In this 1938 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP)

Drew Johnson, who curated the show, said Lange's focus on poverty is timely in an age of economic disparity. The forced relocation of Japanese-Americans during WWII echoes today's debate over proposed travel bans, he said, and her postwar work on changing cities precedes battles over gentrification in places like San Francisco and Oakland.

In this 1933 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is White Angel Breadline, San Francisco. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP) © The Associated Press In this 1933 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is White Angel Breadline, San Francisco. The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP)

"We live in troubled times, as you know, and I think it is impossible not to visit the exhibit and make some connections to things happening today," Johnson said. "It shows how a photographer can assume the role of activist to try to instigate social change."

In this 1938 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Gas Station, Kern County, California (Lettuce Strike). The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP) © The Associated Press In this 1938 photo taken by Dorothea Lange and provided by the Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor, is Gas Station, Kern County, California (Lettuce Strike). The photo is part of a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. The exhibit, which runs through August 13th, includes 100 of Lange's photographs including recognized works and new improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (Dorothea Lange/Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Paul S. Taylor via AP)

Lange, born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, ran a portrait studio in San Francisco in the 1920s before becoming a pioneer of documentary photography.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a letter from John Steinbeck and his book, "The Grapes of Wrath," in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a letter from John Steinbeck and his book, "The Grapes of Wrath," in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

She understood the concepts of blending in as well as standing out. She wandered the streets of New York City as a child, quietly observing others though she walked with a limp from polio. As an adult, her circle included leftists she met in Bohemian San Francisco.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, are part of a series of pictures of the iconic Migrant Mother in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, are part of a series of pictures of the iconic Migrant Mother in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

When the Great Depression hit, Lange had only to look outside the windows of her studio in downtown San Francisco for subjects. One of her earliest and most recognized works is "White Angel Breadline," showing a lone man with a tin cup facing away from a San Francisco soup kitchen in 1933.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a display case of books, jewelry and trinkets depicting the iconic Migrant Mother in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a display case of books, jewelry and trinkets depicting the iconic Migrant Mother in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Her most famous photograph was of 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of seven, at a pea pickers' camp in the town of Nipomo, near the California coast.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a 1935 image of Dorothea Lange atop a car in Texas on the plains that is in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) © The Associated Press In this photo taken Thursday, May 11, 2017, is a 1935 image of Dorothea Lange atop a car in Texas on the plains that is in the exhibit "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," at the Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, Calif. The three major themes of the Lange display are the Great Depression, the home front during World War II and the urban decline and postwar sprawl in California. Running through August 13, the exhibit includes 100 of Lange's photographs, including recognized works as well as new, improved unframed prints that have been digitally scanned. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

An exhausted Lange was driving from Southern California to her home in Berkeley when she stumbled upon the family. Thompson had just sold her tires so her family could eat. She was sitting in a tent with her children, a baby at her breast.

The Lange exhibit includes six other pictures made just before "Migrant Mother."

The major themes of the Lange exhibit are the Great Depression, the home front during WWII, and urban decline and postwar sprawl in California.

Lange was known as a photographer of great empathy, someone who spent time with her subjects and took meticulous notes of their lives for detailed photo captions.

Ken Light, a social documentary photographer and photojournalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says if Lange was alive today, she would be documenting homeless tent cities, the U.S.-Mexico border and poverty in California's Central Valley.

"Revisiting stories she did so well because these stories, they don't disappear," he said.

Documentary photographer Janet Delaney said Lange would be following the issue of homelessness, but her work may not have resonated in today's world.

"I think we all have image fatigue," Delaney said. "It's a tough story to get out."

The Oakland museum houses the largest collection of Lange's work, including 25,000 negatives and 6,000 prints that it received as a gift 50 years ago from Lange's husband, Paul S. Taylor. The exhibit coincides with the 50th anniversary of her death and the gifting of the archive.

Lange lived most of her life in liberal Berkeley. She battled the effects of polio, which she contracted at age 7, for the last two decades of her life and died of esophageal cancer in 1965.

Visitors have a chance to hear from Lange herself, in segments of a 2014 documentary by Lange's granddaughter Dyanna Taylor.

"In every direction that you look, the camera is a powerful instrument by saying to the world, 'This is the way it is. Look at it, look at it!'" she said.

The exhibit runs through Aug. 13.

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