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Nobility in the Ordinary

November 01, 2002

At the opulent Getty Center in Brentwood the other day, two women paused by Dorothea Lange's luminous 1938 photograph of unemployed men lined up to register for unemployment benefits. Lange had taken her shot from above, catching the sunlight that fell on the troubled shoulders and worn-out shoes of men destitute after years of too little work and too little to eat.

"Looks just like now," one of the women commented. "Yeah," said her companion, "they're going to have to do something about it soon."

For Dorothea Lange, photography was a means to bring about social change, her camera as piercing as any political tract. Lange's images for the Resettlement Administration, including her iconic photograph of a migrant mother surrounded by her three disheveled children, connected the insulated affluent to the millions who went hungry and had nowhere to live during the Depression. The Getty's new show, running through Feb. 9, demonstrates Lange's power behind the lens and her enormous range.

The exhibit is paired with a smaller collection of equally vivid images from the California migrant camps of the 1930s taken by Horace Bristol. A photojournalist, Bristol drew his inspiration from Lange's work.

Most Americans know Lange for the photographs she took while traveling the nation during the 1930s, shooting pea pickers, cotton pickers and the others who packed up jalopies and headed west, away from failed Dust Bowl farms, only to find more hardship.

But during the 1940s and '50s, Lange traveled the world -- often on assignment for Life magazine -- recording ordinary moments in locales as disparate as Utah, Pakistan, Indonesia and her home in Berkeley.

For Lange, photography was as much about art as politics. You see the despair on the faces, but also the light: shadows playing on the lined countenance of a Hopi man, sunlight floating through the dresses of Mormon women leaving church.

In the end, though, Lange's photos and Bristol's are about the nobility of daily life -- of hard work, feeding the children and keeping the family together -- even when home is a rain-soaked tent in a farm workers camp.

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