In 1965 the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) made two trips to visit Dorothea Lange at her home in California. Together, John Szarkowsi and Lange prepared for the museum’s mounting of her career retrospective in 1966. The exhibition at the prestigious museum covered 25 years of her work. This film excerpt captures the two sorting through her prints and experimenting with layouts.
“He was shaking up the entire photography world,” explains Elizabeth Partridge, author of Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life, about the reputation of Szarkowski. “He saw in Dorothea’s work that he could make a statement about what was possible with photography.”
Sandra Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, explains Szarkowsi’s challenge at the time to legitimize photography as art.
“The idea of a photograph being in a museum was a kind of complicated issue,” says Phillips. “It took a while for us to get out of the magazine context and … just put the photograph itself on the wall ….. He recognized that Lange’s photographs didn’t have to have all this context—to get what she was after. That you could admire her photographs for themselves.”
A Museum of Modern Art “checklist” document includes a from 1966, detailing the photos hung in each exhibit room, with written statements by Dorothea Lange and John Szarkowski. Szarkowski’s curator statement includes, “Lange was by choice a social observer, and by instinct an artist. In the best of her photographs the demands of these two commitments are reconciled and resolved; the image and its comment are inseparable.”
Lange died of cancer three months before the exhibition opened.
American Masters — Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning premieres nationwide Friday, August 29 at 9-11 pm on PBS (check local listings).