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Reynolda House Museum of American Art Presents 'Dorothea Lange’s America' Sept. 14 – Dec. 30, 2018

Winston-Salem, NC—Reynolda House Museum of American Art will present the work of legendary photographer Dorothea Lange from Sept. 14 through Dec. 30, 2018. The exhibition, “Dorothea Lange’s America,” presents Lange’s haunting photographs of 1930s and 1940s America and features some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. The show will survey 30 original prints by Lange, including her searing depictions of the distressed people and landscapes created by the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and westward migration. Also featured in the exhibition are 25 images by fellow photographers crisscrossing the country, from the Carolinas to California, Alabama to New York, capturing the era in pictures. Their intimate portraits of everyday life in difficult times were the collective result of a new approach to photography: using the camera as an instrument of social change.  

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the most recognizable photograph of Lange’s career, “Migrant Mother,” made in 1936. It is also one of the most arresting images ever created; its ensuing influence on photojournalism is incapable of measurement. The portrait of a woman with three of her young children became a visual shorthand for the Great Depression and humanized its consequences for the public at large. Upon original publication in a San Francisco newspaper, the image ignited a massive benevolent response: 20,000 pounds of food was delivered within days to the migrant camp where the photograph was made.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
23 x 18 inches, Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection 

 

“Migrant Mother” was made at the end of a month-long assignment to document migratory farm labor around California. Lange never asked for personal information from her subjects, but the woman at the pea-picking camp in Nipomo told her that she and her seven children had been surviving on vegetables from the surrounding fields that had been destroyed by a rare frost, and birds that the children killed. She had sold the tires from her car to buy food. Lange told “Popular Photography” magazine in 1960, “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so, she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

The majority of photographs in the exhibition were commissioned by the Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency that recognized the unique ability of photography to raise public awareness of desperate social needs. A photographer contingent of more than 20 men and women, including Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Mike Disfarmer and Marion Post Wolcott, was dispersed to cities and rural areas to provide evidence of the need for federal aid.

“One of art’s greatest gifts is its ability to open the heart to other modes of existence,” said Phil Archer, Reynolda House chief curator for the exhibition. “Few bodies of work instill such instant empathy as the documentary photographs of Dorothea Lange.”

Archer adds that, “Seeing her photographs with that of other FSA photographers allows us to appreciate the shaping eyes of the artists who created these historical documents. Though united in purpose, each one brought a defining element to their compositions. It is one of the virtues of these documentary photographers of the 1930s and 40s that they made the confusing forces of displacement and the Great Depression understandable through individual stories told only with light, chemicals, and paper.”

Dorothea Lange (1895 –1965) began her career as a portrait photographer catering to San Francisco’s professional class and moneyed elite. She found her true calling with the crash of 1929, as a peripatetic chronicler of the many faces of America: old and young, urban and rural, native-born and immigrant. This exhibition makes clear that she brought both her portrait experience to bear on her subsequent endeavor and a mission to tell authentic human stories. She imbued her images with a deep and lasting expressiveness that touched the viewer.

Among the 10 other Depression-era photographers whose work will be featured in the exhibition is Walker Evans. Prior to his commission by the FSA during 1935-1937, Evans’ photographs were the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photos taken for the FSA were later shown in a second solo show at the museum in 1938:  “Walker Evans: American Photographs.”  

The Evans prints to be highlighted in “Dorothea Lange’s America” record his travels in New York City, Georgia, and, most influentially, his months in Hale County, Alabama. Evans took a leave from the FSA in 1936 in order to document the living conditions of Alabama sharecropper families, a collaborative project with writer James Agee. The results were published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941 as “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a book recognized by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Evans later went to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to photograph slum conditions for the FSA. The mayor of the city at the time, R.J. (“Dick”) Reynolds Jr. was committed to providing decent housing for the poor. He was likewise intent on using photography as a tool for garnering government aid. The photographs he commissioned successfully led to the securing of funding for the first federal housing project in the state. 

The exhibition also will feature two other women photographers, one working for the FSA, the other motivated by a similar concern to bring attention to the needs of struggling Americans. Marion Post Wolcott will be represented by one photograph of vegetable pickers near Homestead, Florida, waiting in line to be paid. Four exquisite platinum prints by Doris Ulmann draw attention to the subcultures of the South, including the “Southern Highlands" of the Appalachian mountains and the African-American Gullah communities of the South Carolina coast.

“Dorothea Lange’s America” will be on view in the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing of Reynolda House Museum of American Art.  All works are from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. The exhibition was organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions.  

Program Highlights

September:

  • Sept. 28 – Oct. 4  - Film screenings of “Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” the life story of Dorothea Lange told through her granddaughter’s eyes. Photos, film footage, interviews, family memories and journals reveal the artist who challenged America to know itself. The 2014 film will be screened at a/perture Cinema, a downtown Winston-Salem independent theatre.

October:

  • Saturday, Oct. 6 - Live recording of a performance by musicians Dom Flemons and Alice Gerrard with singer Kay Justice for a future episode of “Across the Blue Ridge,” produced by WFDD for National Public Radio. The regionally syndicated show focuses on the southern Blue Ridge area known through generations and still today as a hotbed of old-time, bluegrass, blues, and country music.
  • Thursday, Oct. 11, 6 p.m. - Book talk with John Hayes, author of “Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South.” Hayes will discuss his captivating study of faith and class, and the ways folk religion in the early 20th century allowed the South’s poor – both white and black – to listen, borrow, and learn from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in a world of severe struggle.
  • Sundays Oct. 21 – Nov. 4 - Depression-era film series featuring introduction and discussion with film scholars Dale Pollock and David Lubin, and filmmaker Angus MacLachlan. Films include “The Grapes of Wrath,” “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and “Sullivan’s Travels.”

Ticket Information

Plan your daytrip or overnight visit to Reynolda by purchasing an exhibition ticket in advance. Tickets for the exhibition go on sale in June. Tickets are $18, and include “Dorothea Lange’s America”; the Reynolda House American art collection installed throughout the historic house with original furnishings; and access to the gardens, trails and greenspace of Reynolda.  Admission is free for children, students with identification, and members of the military.

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About Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a rare gem among the nation’s cultural institutions. Established in 1967, it presents a renowned art collection in a historic and incomparable setting: the original 1917 interiors of the country manor of R. J. Reynolds. Spanning 250 years, the collection is an uncompromisingly selective one, a chronology of American art, with each artist represented by one work of major significance. Highlights are: Albert Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Frederic Edwin Church, Stuart Davis, Martin Johnson Heade, Alex Katz, Lee Krasner, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, and Grant Wood. The collection was assembled by the unerring eye of Barbara Babcock Millhouse, granddaughter of R. J. and Katharine Reynolds. The Reynolda experience also features the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing, which hosts touring exhibitions; Reynolda Gardens, composed of formal gardens and walking trails through the expansive estate; Reynolds family archives; and Reynolda Village, more than 25 of the estate’s original buildings repurposed as shops and restaurants. Reynolda, located at 2250 Reynolda Road, is an affiliate of Wake Forest University. For more information, please visit reynoldahouse.org. Connect at facebook.com/rhmaa and @CurateReynolda.