There is the hot summer. There is London and the brown waters of the Thames and Theresa May, having taken a holiday break from the Brexit-commotion. There is my son and there is me, our third summer in London – the warmest since the ‘40s. It is a wake-up call, people say – but will it be remembered as such? Will the menacing heat burn itself sufficiently into our memory? On our way to the exhibition we talk about such things. About what will happen to photography in a time where it no longer represents truth.
The story of the history
My son is fourteen now and the wars are on his mind – World War I and World War II. His historical interest opens up a passage for him into the games I don’t play, the concepts I’m unfamiliar with or mispronounce. He spent the spring months selling toilet paper in the neighbourhood to earn money for a school excursion with «the white buses» to Auschwitz and Treblinka. He understands the scope of fake news. Pictures can lie. There is a difference between documentation and propaganda.
The first London day is spent at the Imperial War Museum, where we see parts of Triumph of the Will from 1935, the Nazi propaganda movie whose director Leni Riefenstahl stubbornly claimed was a documentary, a view she held all her life. Hitler is depicted as a demi-god descending from the sky to greet the people at the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1934. Even a cat on a windowsill turns to him as he glides through town in an open car.
I have told my son that the exhibition we are going to visit might show other sides of the story than those we saw at the war museum. Because of this he comes with me, despite his indisposition. We are going to see the photographs of the British Vanessa Winship and the American Dorothea Lange (1895-1965).
My son has already been shown Lange’s famous picture of Florence Owens Thompson from the depression in the USA, known as «Migrant Mother». The picture is iconic but not unproblematic: Lange persuaded Thompson to give a face to the poverty of the time, but for Thompson herself nothing changed for the better.
«Winship’s pictures reflect the economic decline in the US while drawing a map of the country’s history of violence.»
Both Lange and Winship worked with photography as a political tool. Both documented travels, Winship in Eastern Europe and the USA, among other places, often with a poetic approach to her objects; Lange travelled widely, focusing on marginal zones and injustice.
A separate floor is dedicated to each exhibition, but they are unified by their many interconnections. The deceased Lange carries her contemporary colleague on her shoulders, also in a concrete manner: From Winship’s upper floor we can look down and catch a glimpse of Lange’s photos and be reminded of the paradoxical nature of this art-form: «It captures the now which is immediately the past.» (Winship)
Winship works predominantly in black and white, as Lange also did, which acts as a reminder that photography is a representation. The pictures take on topics like identity, borders, and memories, and are often accompanied by texts – writings on the wall, sound recordings, mail correspondences – providing generous access to the context of the images: to what happens before and after the picture is taken.
Art for change
The exhibition is a part of the great 2018 initiative of the Barbican Art Gallery, «The Art of Change», whose focus includes the potential of art to change the social and political landscape. In 2011 Winship received the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award – enabling her to make the series She Dances on Jackson (2011-2012), reflecting the economic decline in the US while drawing a map of the country’s history of violence.
Some of the people portrayed carry scars and tattoos in the shape of words and drawings on their skin, as they stand in front of various landscapes and cityscapes. Together with classic landscapes – such as a car on a torn concrete road – they bring attention to self-harm and the harm we bring onto others and to nature through the way we live our modern lives. This series in particular resonates with Lange’s photographs, especially those from the crisis-ridden ‘30s.
Lange’s exhibition opens with some of her early studio works, but soon the gaze is directed outwards towards the world at large. Lange supposedly never described her pictures as documentary images, but also failed to find a more fitting term for her work. Lange has been said to have a picture of a Francis Bacon quote on her wall, providing perhaps a clue to her attitude towards life and photography: «The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.»
«Faces and hands are important elements in Lange’s pictures, and they reveal anger and impotence as well as hope. »
Lange tells the stories of men and women, children and elderly people, while using places, landscapes and details as markers for the wider political context. In contrast to Riefenstahl, Lange doesn’t highlight certain things so as to hide others; neither content nor focus bear witness to a hierarchical approach to the subjects (even if I sometimes ask myself about their experience of being photographed).
My son checks the dating of the pictures, cross-checking with historical incidents, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Lange’s pictures from the same period show Japanese-Americans in internment camps: people who have had their jobs, homes and identity taken away from them. We look for the consequences in the faces of the people that are portrayed, in their hands. Both are important elements in Lange’s pictures and they reveal anger and impotence as well as hope.
Dorothea Lange led a long life behind the camera, aiming to shed light on injustices and bring about change. With contemporary USA in mind, many of her photos appear urgent and relevant – both to the fourteen-year-old and to me.