Opening at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

The exhibition showcases Lange’s work as an illustrated form of social activism

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum will present one of America’s greatest photographers, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, February 14 – May 10, 2020, which examines a broad range of the artist's work through the lens of social and political activism.


From documenting the plight of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression to magnifying the experiences of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, Lange’s photographs illustrate the power of photography and illuminate major social issues of the 20th century. The exhibition will include both well recognized and rarely seen photographs that reveal and re-establish the artist as a significant pioneer in photography as historical documentary and social activism.


 “Visitors will experience Dorothea Lange's most iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, a socially gripping image created during Lange’s time documenting Dust Bowl refugees,” said Natalie Shirley, Museum President & CEO. “There is no artist who better exemplifies the power of storytelling through art; it is said she saw herself as a social activist first and photographer second, with her camera as a tool for change.”

Although Lange’s photographs were taken more than 50 years ago, many of the issues they address remain relevant today: poverty, environmental degradation, and treatment of immigrants, the erosion of rural communities, racial discrimination and women’s rights. They also speak to the continuing role of visual images in shaping public opinion and political positions.


“To Dorothea Lange, photography was a language,” said Kimberly Roblin, Director of the Museum’s Dickinson Research Center and Curator of Archives. “A single image was a word. Two or three displayed together were a phrase. Many people today recognize Migrant Mother, but by Lange’s definition, it’s only one word. This exhibition reveals the sentences.”


Through approximately 80 photographs – including vintage prints and unedited proof sheets as well as personal memorabilia and historic objects – the exhibition examines how the beloved American photographer’s artistry and advocacy swayed minds and prompted significant change. Politics of Seeing will highlight Lange’s works focused on the Great Depression, the Japanese Internment, World War II, Postwar California, race and the criminal system. Film clips of Lange speaking about her work will also be presented, as well as comments from people who knew her.


Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing is organized by the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition is supported in part by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board and the Henry Luce Foundation.