Dorothea Lange was one of the strongest influences in the creation of what we now know as documentary photography. If we do not know her name, we are almost certain to recognize her images of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and 40s.
At the outbreak of World War II, she was hired – along with Ansel Adams, Frances Stewart and Clem Albers – by the newly formed War Relocation Authority to document the relocation and internment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry from cities on the west coast to camps spread out from California to Utah. The government’s goal was to show that the process was just and humane.
Dorothea Lange wrestled with her role as a documentarian and as a witness to what she considered a grave injustice. Her stake in her work was political as well as personal: she and her husband, Paul Taylor, had many Japanese friends from the Bay area who were interned. According to Lange biographer and co-editor of Impounded, Linda Gordon, there are no written letters or documents that would suggest Lange’s motivation in working for the WRA. But we do know that she plunged into her work taking thousands of images beginning in February 1942 and for the next three years of the war. She began with the lives of the Japanese on the farms they would be forced to sell, the fishing boats they would leave behind, the stores that would be taken for well below market value by those who were judged more American. She was there at the processing centers where families were registered and given their instructions. Some of her most poignant and telling images record the waiting – the long lines, the collected baggage and bedding, the few belongings each family was permitted to take with them. And Lange began to document the life of the Japanese at the Manzanar Camp in California. It was inside the camp that she encountered ongoing, instinctive opposition from the military and camp authorities to her presence and the images she sought to record. She encountered myriad roadblocks; her credentials were constantly challenged. Many of her images were impounded by the military censors for violating the rules of censorship – for telling a bit too much of the truth. Many of these impounded images are the heart of this exhibition and the book, Impounded.
What is all the more remarkable about Lange’s position and practice in her photography of the internment experience is that it meant turning against Roosevelt, whose programs she had so strongly supported during the New Deal. Lange’s opposition to internment was also unusual within the American Left. The American Communist Party itself supported the internment in the name of the “international front against fascism.” Other progressive organizations such as the NAACP either favored the internment or refused to oppose it.