“The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the object. So that no one would say, how did you do it, where did you find it, but they would say that such things could be.” — Dorothea Lange

In a serendipitous confluence of timing, ideally suited to a pandemic, the new Dorothea Lange Digital Archive, a free, online experience showcasing the work of world-renowned documentary photographer, and Berkeley’s own, Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), was opened this month by the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). There is no better way to enjoy enlightening, arresting and artistic photography than to view the more than 600 hi-resolution noteworthy photographs from the comfort of your home.

Both celebrated and less-known material are accompanied by pertinent quotations from Lange, as well as historical information that elucidates the framework and meaning behind the images, making the archive a valuable educational resource for children as well as adults. The Digital Archive also contains contact sheets, film negatives and links to related materials as additional resources for the many curators, scholars and general audiences accessing Lange’s body of work.

Over 50 years ago, Lange and her husband, Paul S. Taylor (1895–1984), gave all of Lange’s non-public domain photography collection to OMCA — about 40,000 negatives and 6,000 prints, plus other memorabilia. The challenging task of establishing the archive was headed by OMCA Curator of Photography & Visual Culture Drew Johnson and Mellon Curatorial Fellow S. Topiary Landberg, through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. (Watch a video that explains some of the digitization process.)

Lange’s local roots significant for OMCA

The archive is divided into four main sections, The Depression, World War II at Home, Post-war Projects, and Early/Personal Works. Although most of us are familiar with Lange’s Depression photographs, such as her most recognized portrait, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), the other sections are also treasure troves of truth and beauty. For example, Three Mormon Towns (1953), mirrors changes in three Mormon communities in Utah and became a Life magazine spread. The project grew out of a collaboration with Ansel Adams, which, unfortunately, caused a falling-out between the artists.

“Dorothea’s images have never been more relevant and important for everyone to see than they are today,” said Berkeley resident Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s goddaughter, and the author of several well-regarded books, including the beautiful Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2013).

“It used to be a huge trek to OMCA, going through security and winding your way through the museum to the room where her images are stored. Now anyone who is interested has access to the richness and depth of her archive. I think it is the most important thing that has happened to her work since it was given to the museum decades ago.”

“…Though rooted in historical moments, Lange’s photographs make powerful connections to important themes and events of today,” Johnson told Berkeleyside. “Because she lived in the East Bay and did some of her most important work in Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond, the collection has special significance for OMCA. She often used photographs taken in the Bay Area as a way to comment on national issues.”

The exceptional Dorothea Lange Digital Archive certainly amplifies Lange’s reputation as one of the great social realism photographers of the 20th century.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...