Category Archives: Exhibitions

Dorothea Lange – MoMA Exhibition

Coincidentally, or you might say serendipitously, I came across the virtual exhibition on Dorothea Lange at MOMA  (Meister, s.d.) just as I am starting Part 4, Image and Text of Identity and Place. In spite of her fame I know little of Lange’s work. There is the overriding image Migrant Mother. She worked for the Farm Security Administration.  She was American. I am now going to have to travel down a long exploratory road.

The virtual exhibition shows installation views, where you can click on the images to see some, possibly not all, of the pictures displayed. There are also a series of videos discussing her work, a fascinating live Q & A session with Sally Mann  and a work by Sam Contis Day Sleeper  that shows the way her work has developed from exploring Lange’s work ‘ a fragmented, unfamiliar world centred around the figure of the day sleeper – at once a symbol of respite and oblivion’ (Contis, 2020). The images are available on the MOMA website. (Contis, s.d.)

I took extensive notes (appended below). In summary the main things I took from the videos were:

  • See what was really there. Listen to the people and really hear
  • The human face is a universal language
  • All photographs can be fortified with words (Lange did this extensively)
  • Mann’s description of The Defender “it hit me so hard…the silence of despair is filled with sound”
  • The quote from Francis Bacon ‘The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention’ (Bacon lived 1562 – 1626).
  • Photography can undermine your actual memories of an event or a place. You remember the image not the reality. Writing about it further compounds the confusion – layers on layers
  • Work and get on with it
  • Be organised and ordinary so that your work can be outrageous and original (a slight twist/modernisation on a Flaubert quote
  • Lange was interested in everyone – not just the white Americans that the FSA wanted her to show

In the piece by River Bullock  (Bullock, s.d.) she gives two quotes from Lange:

 “I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality. About the last ditch.”

“You see it’s evidence. It’s not pictorial illustration, it’s evidence. It’s a record of human experience. It’s linked with history. We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures. To tell the truth is in some people’s nature and it can be a habit, but you can also get in the habit of not telling the truth.”

There is a very poignant book of poetry by Tess Taylor Last West (Taylor, 2020) that has been written to coincide with the exhibition. It consists of a college of words from Lange’s own diaries, words spoken by the people she met and Taylors own words that she found while following Lange’s footsteps across California. It finishes:

                you might walk for a while

                as the road grows distant;

                might feel in the silence

                how you’re just walking –

                might feel           for a moment

                how                       it’s just earth again.

I have also taken the opportunity to look at the exhibition catalogue (Meister et al., 2020) which contains a fascinating series of essays along with the images. In the first essay Sarah Meister talks about the use of words alongside images and how important Lange thought that to be. However, despite its importance, the words could change – Migrant Mother was only the last of a series of titles and descriptions given to that image. The story of this is told in the book including copies of Lange’s thoughts on it in Popular Photography (pp.134-145). Meister notes ‘In the hazy middle ground of truth and invention are the carefully selected truths that hold the powers to persuade’ (p.21). The book also contains a series of essays in which writers, photographers and philosophers talk about their favourite image in the exhibition. They make fascinating reading – the choice of Kimberly Juanita Brown is simply titled Grayson, San Joaquin Valley, California, 1983. It shows a clapboard building and only when you look closely you realise it is a church with a dead body on the porch. A surprising choice? – But when you check her online you discover that she is a professor specialising in gender studies, slavery, and the images of the dead. Other essays talk about the history related to the images ‘a ten-year apocalypse of dust, human suffering, and folly’, ‘will history continue to repeat until the torturous cycle collapses in on itself?’ (p.65) by Wendy Red Star (a Native American multi-media artist) on Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas, June 1938.  Sally Mann’s writing about The Defendant, Almeida County Courthouse, California,1955-57 reads as a prose poem. ‘But the defendant’s heart: there is no warming sun, no warming spirits, no comfort of companionship’ (p.126).  Much of the catalogue shows pictures of the books and magazines that Lange’s work was published in. It is, therefore, possible to read the text that they were originally shown with, alongside some comments that Lange or her co-workers  made about them, for instance: “the Mormon story turned out very sour indeed” by Ansel Adams as the pictures they had chosen were severely cut down.

I am also reading the fascinating biography of Lange by Linda Gordon Dorothea Lange; A Life Beyond Limits.(Gordon, 2009). I think I may be a little Lange obsessed.



Bullock, R. (s.d.) Written by Dorothea Lange. At: (Accessed  08/05/2020).

Contis, S. (2020) Day Sleeper. London: Mack.

Contis, S. (s.d.) A Portfolio of Photographs from Sam Contis’s Day Sleeper | Magazine. At: (Accessed  08/05/2020).

Gordon, L. (2009) Dorothea Lange: A Llife Beyond Limits. (1st ed) London ; New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Meister, S. (s.d.) Dorothea Lange Words & Pictures/MOMA. At: (Accessed  08/05/2020).

Meister, S. H. et al. (2020) Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures. (1st ed) New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Taylor, T. (2020) Last west. (1st ed) New York: The Museum of Modern Art.





Regular Reflections – December 2

Reading: (limited because of Xmas chaos)

  • Started Train your Gaze fascinating information and would like to find time to work on the exercises
  • Carpe Fucking Diem by Elina Brotherus, a tale of sorrow, loneliness and despair, bookended by sections of life. Favourite image – the blossoms, white against grey, (? cherries). How can you reveal yourself to others so nakedly? No words, none needed.


  • BP portrait of the year at the Scottish National portrait gallery.
      • A documentary about what makes a portrait – worth seeing, talks about the guilt a painter feels for exposing the sitter to the public, and how the sitter feels for being exposed, how the judging was done – it doesn’t have to be crystal clear, its often the things you can’t figure out, how people feel when they have been shortlisted, the intensity of painting
    • Seen this most years but this will be the last time up here because been withdrawn from the calendar because of links with the oil industry
    • Favourite image – 3rd prize – Quo Vadis? By Massimiliano Pironti. Oil on aluminium. Magic picture that looks so real you want to stroke it. He says vanitas like effect of open window and hot water bottle referencing passing of time.
    • 2nd favourite – Girl without a pearl earring – Bas Nijenhuis – apparently someone the artist met in the street and asked to paint.
    • Also Openings Thomas Ehretsmann – monochrome acrylic on wood of a girl, shadows and doors – reminds me of Woodman images
    • Travel award portraits – fascinating series by Robert Seidel about travel the length of the Danube.
  • Scotland’s Photograph Album, the McKinnon Collection
  • Oscar Marzaroli at Street Level in Glasgow
    • Wonderful images of Glasgow
    • Favourite is the Golden Haired Lass
    • Interesting contrast between his images and the Annan ones taken almost a century earlier, both showing children from the slums, the later ones only slightly cleaner than the earlier and several others in between such as Bert Hardy.

Scottish OCA Group meeting:

  • Started by seeing the Oscar Marzaroli exhibition as above, excellent exhibition, beautifully hung, images stand out against new colour of walls (calendar obtained)
  • Discussed at length the problems with focus, the need for a plan, a beginning, middle and end, possibly even using a GANT chart! Actually do things, even if not directly relevant to get your mind working.
  • Think about using a photographers Playbook type approach to make you do work you are uncomfortable with and stretch you.
  • Get feedback – who from? not just friends and family but outsiders
  • Could we do a group art show?
  • For the future – think about how you would die a proposal, time-limited and budgeted. How do you value your time?
  • Consider
    • Dora Marr exhibition
    • Jonathon Owens pictures
    • The Extended Mind at the Talbot-Rice gallery
  • Discussed the zines we experimented with
  • Need to consider use of flash within portrait photography, especially if inside.


  • Flowers – to make a New Year’s card. I haven’t taken any for ages and found it surprisingly difficult to get back into the groove
  • The photoshop play to make the card


  • Working on contacting a group of ASD people, reasonable interest gained from local support group – but no actual meetings planned to the New Year. 


Self Evidence – Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

Self Evidence is an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, which is being shown, appropriately, in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery.  The three photographers shown were all interested in the idea of identity, or the self, and how to show it.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Arbus is a fascinating photographer who took a collection of images of what she called her ‘singular people’. These were often of people who were different in some way, for instance, the Jewish giant, and the images of people from nudist camps. There are ethical dilemmas in her images, especially when looked at from todays stance. Did she ask permission? Did she explain how she was using the images? Did she pay for them? The answer to all of these is probably no – but nor did any of the photographers of her time. She undoubtedly took images that would be difficult to take today – those of people with a learning difficulty and physical challenges. Nowadays we would need to find out who has the appropriate guardianship and rights of welfare attorney, get formal permission, and credit the people involved. Does that mean the images should not have been taken then, when it was a different world? Does it mean they should not be shown now? What is obvious from the images is that Arbus engaged with the people. For the images of those people in a nudist camp she took the pictures while naked to make them feel comfortable. She talked to the people with learning problems and visited them – something that was rarely done at that time, when ‘mental issues’ were hidden away. She gave them a voice, even if they did nor fully understand what was being said.  Arbus addressed identity by looking at other people rather than herself.

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)

In Woodman’s short life she took a vast number of images, many which have never been on display. The ones shown in this exhibition are a variety of images mainly of herself or her boyfriend, Ben. They are small, black and white, mostly square. Some have been written across and were used as notes to send to others. Many are partially out of focus. She utilised mirrors, reflections and odd shafts of light to illuminate the important areas. Many of the images show herself partly hidden or on the edge of the frame, such as Untitled (FW crouching behind an umbrella). She becomes a ghostly partial presence. Do the images tell you about Woodman – or hide her? It is difficult to read her images nowadays without considering her suicide at a young age, and wondering what impact this had on her photography – but much of her oeuvre was  taken well before that and it is almost certainly simplistic to assume that all the images were taken by someone who was depressed! Much is experimental, much echoes the type of photography and art she was exposed to.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

The exhibition of Mapplethorpe self-portraits shows a range of images from those of him in his early bad boy, leather and whips phase to ones with a suited and serious mien to those taken just before his death. They often show him playing a role, holding a knife or a gun, possibly copying stances from films. They become gradually less controversial, although not completely so. There is one from 1985 which shows him wearing horns. Is he playing as a satyr or as a devil? Is it another riff on his earlier images that use themes from the Catholic Church? The final one is of his face and hand holding a stick with a skull. All else is black. A true play on a ‘memento mori’ image, made more poignant because he was clearly aware of his own impending death.  All of the images are beautifully crafted, balanced and set formally within the frame. Whatever you think of his lifestyle and the photographs he chose to take it is impossible to deny that he was a skilled artist, who used his own life to tell a story about a population that was mainly hidden then, and often still is.


It was fascinating to see these three photographers side by side. They all died young, two by suicide, one because of AIDS. They were all interested in portraiture. The photographs they took were very different. Arbus showed her interest in people by taking images of others. Woodman photographed herself, but in an elliptical, sideways way, hiding as much as she showed. Mapplethorpe’s images are clear, in your face and controversial – but does his apparent clarity hide as much as Woodman’s less overt images do?