ALL ARTS Vault Selects


Dorothea Lange—Under The Trees

Join us for this intimate 1965 documentary of American photographer Dorothea Lange. After learning about Lange’s journey from “the studio to the street,” you’ll also see as Lange works with John Szarkowski, the then director of photography at MoMA, as the two curate photographs from across Lange’s career for a landmark retrospective show.

AIRED: February 11, 2020 | 0:31:40


Welcome to the All Arts Vault.

I'm Shanelle Gabriel.

The Vault is the place to go for special access

to all things arts, so we're going into the archives

to uncover some of our greatest gems

and share these programs with you

as they would have been seen decades ago

when they first aired.

Today, we're featuring the first episode

of a two-part documentary series

about the landmark photographer Dorothea Lange.

Written and narrated by Richard Moore,

this episode intimately follows Lange at her home

in Berkeley, California, and her final months

before succumbing to cancer in 1965.

Our program begins by taking you through an overview of the life

and career of this essential artist,

one largely known for her seminal portraits

of Depression-era migrant workers

for the Farm Security Administration.

Moore highlights Lange's journey from the studio to the street

during the Depression and her later less-seen work

in documenting Japanese internment camps

for the War Relocation Authority as well as her photographs

from her travels to Ireland, Asia, and Egypt.

From there, you'll see as Lange works with John Szarkowski,

the then director of photography at MoMA

as the two curate photographs from across Lange's career

for a retrospective show.

This 1966 retrospective put on three months after Lange's death

would end up being the first one-person retrospective

of a female photographer at MoMA.

To be able to so candidly witness

this process between curator and artist

is an illuminating peek into the life

and work of one of America's greatest photographers,

one who courageously continued to think about her work

even as her health was deteriorating.

This is "Dorothea Lange: Under the Trees."

Narrator: In this garden

and in the house almost hidden within it,

one finds the home base of a photographer, Dorothea Lange.

Her name is listed among the masters of photography,

but this is not about photography.

It is about Dorothea Lange, who, in her long, rich,

and frequently painful life, has used the camera vastly

to enrich our perception of ourselves

and of the human condition.

How do you tell others about what you think is worth telling,

what you have either discovered or uncovered or learned

or been endowed with in one way or another

and what you think is meaningful --

not moral but meaningful.

If you have been fortunate enough

to have an instrument

that's flexible for these purposes, you try.

You find your way.


no one can assure you

where you've been successful and where you haven't.

You never really know that,

but that's what the job is.

What you hold on to is a revelation to you in itself,

some things you are ready to say,

"This served its purpose. This is now over.

This is final."

All of this to a person with a sense of time.

This is wartime, closing days of the war with Germany,

end of the Roosevelt era,

opening of U.N. conference, and this is where --

Right in here is where I stopped.

I didn't work for three years, I think.

That finished it.

It wasn't the conference that finished me,

but I couldn't go any further.

It was a very exciting thing, and, oh, it hurt me very much.

Narrator: For the past 20 years, all that Dorothea Lange has done

has been under a deepening shadow of illness until...

Lange: Oh, this? I was told at Kaiser

that I have cancer of the esophagus,

and, so, I work for the exhibition

and contemplate things as they are.

Narrator: The Museum of Modern Art invited Dorothea Lange

to prepare a major exhibition of her work, and she accepted.

This meant, however, giving up a cherished project

for Look magazine

photographing at the family cabin fronting the Pacific,

photographing the family.

Lange: Not a summer cabin, much more elemental,

a protection from the wind and weather one-board thick,

and it shakes when the ocean is high

and it beats on the rocks.

That cabin shakes, and you feel every wave,

and the children respond to that,

so they get elemental, too.

We found that we could spend very good weekends there,

Paul and I, taking the grandchildren there.

Then I began to wonder what it was that made us

all feel the minute we went over the brow of that hill

a certain sense of,

not peace particularly or enjoyment, freedom.

Then I thought, "I could do a real...sequence,

series of photographs, on the subject of freedom

of which the cabin would be the device."

I don't want to build up this idea

of this story of the cabin

to be anything greater than it is,

accepting that it really took hold of me.

And I really think, to tell you the truth,

I would rather do this story on the cabin

than do my big show at the museum.

I would rather do it.

I mean, that's the thing I would like to do.

The other goes back and is making use of material

that I have already approached, just approached.

Narrator: To prepare for the exhibition

meant that a lifetime of work must be examined

negative by negative, print by print.

Born in 1895, Dorothea Lange decided to become a photographer

at the age of 17.

At 20, she set out with a friend to photograph

her way around the world,

but she became stranded in San Francisco,

and a year later she opened a portrait studio,

which over the years prospered.

But in the 1930s, in the years of the Great Depression,

Dorothea Lange's attention

shifted literally from the studio to the street.

She was hired by the economist Paul Taylor,

who sought to use the camera as a research tool.

Their first work together was a study of migratory labor

in California.

Soon thereafter, Dorothea Lange became a part of that remarkable

group of photographers working under Roy Stryker

for the Farm Security Administration.

Here we have this one that I can't remember.

I know it's cotton, and I believe it's Texas. quite sure that's Texas.

Let's put it in Texas for the time being.

Narrator: The FSA file represents perhaps

the highest point yet achieved in documentary photography.

Not good enough, Dorothea.

That's better.

You know, I got A for effort on this, but not better.

Sometimes just A for effort, that's all.

But here is one.

Narrator: In 1940, Dorothea Lange continued

to work for the government,

photographing the conditions and problems of farm workers

for the Bureau of Agricultural Economics.

In 1941, she began work under a Guggenheim fellowship,

but then came Pearl Harbor and the war

and photographs for the War Relocation Authority.

In 1943, she worked for the OWI.

Lange: '44, I worked for the OWI

where there are no negatives here.

'45 I worked for OWI and then went to the hospital.

After that time, there was no illness.

That stops right there.

And we are through that box,

and I feel as though I've made a visit.

I feel as though I've gone back on a trip,

and I'm going to stop for a few minutes and see.

I'll just sit over here for a minute.

Oh, boy.


Oh, my.

'46 a total loss, '47 we'll see.

I didn't know if I was going to live or die.

Narrator: Exhausted and under constant medication,

every hour spent in reconstructing the chronology

of her life's work costs much.

Lange: I had one grand exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in '53.

'53 I went to Utah.

'54 I went to Ireland, and '55 I went back to the hospital.

At the end of '55, I saw the public defender.

This man is the judge in the superior court,

where I tried to make photographs

which showed what a man does

and what he encountered when he's public defender.

The nature of the job is what I tried to describe.

'58 I went on a trip around the world,

and I said to the doctor, "Shall I go?"

And he said, "What's the difference

whether you die here or there? Let's go."

'61 I worked with the Remembrance of Asia.

'63 I was in Egypt and Syria and back to the hospital.

I would very much like to avoid it,

and on the other hand, I feel I can't.

I must do it, get that exhibition together

and put it on the wall for other people to look at,

which will spell out

what I would like to speak about in photography.

Narrator: Your working methods are not likely to get the job done.

I well know it.

Narrator: One of the first people Dorothea talked with

about the exhibition was her son, Dan Dixon.

I know it because I know.

And I think maybe the time has come now for you

to make some decisions.

And I will know. Okay.

It is not really modesty on my part.

Don't mistake it.

I know that. It's not modesty.

It's that I'm afraid.

I know that. I'm afraid.

You know...

one's photographs...

really, I mean, in a case like mine

when you've been a photographer all your life,

there is no ducking...

that that's where the content is.

The time for me is past to do

what is called the documenting thing.

I have done that, but out of those materials

I want to extract...

the things that are the items that are in a sense --

I don't know.

Sublimations is the way that comes to my mind.

Give me another.

An essence of a situation,

the universality of the situation, not the circumstance,

I have a million things to do, a million.

I never have had so many things to do,

and I've been busy all my life, really busy,

but busy and working is different.

Often we keep ourselves darn busy so we don't have to work.

Right now, it's desk work on my part.

Desk work plus fear is a bad combination.

I can't cut out the fear, but I can cut out the desk work.

John Z is coming on Tuesday.

Narrator: John Szarkowski,

curator of photography for the Museum of Modern Art,

scheduled a visit to the Lange-Taylor household

in Berkeley, California.

In the meantime, the print selection

and the 1,001 other activities in the house continued.

Where is the cheese? Is it cut up?

Woman: It's in the soup.

Oh, it's already done? Yeah.

All right. I was going to give you a hand

on the cutting of the cheese.

The fact that I'm getting the things ready for the show

gives me an added incentive and something better that I knew.

You ask yourself kind of questions like,

"Why was I working so well that two weeks,

and then all of a sudden no good at all?

What was it? Was it the weather?

I'm just really beginning to sense what's in this

Is it a type that was better, or do you get that?"

Because how curious.

I'm just really beginning

to sense what's in this medium.

I go over it as I've been doing lately,

my old negatives over different periods for the show,

and, my, how much I could have made of the things

I actually did had I understood those negatives as well

as I understand them now and the different choices

I would have made, things I pass by now with very little interest

that I once thought were the good ones,

that I stopped short at some and wouldn't look at them.

So, I feel it is my negatives.

It's just, what a great capturing

that was of something, you know?

I'm glad to see you.

Narrator: Szarkowski's arrival marked the beginning

of long hours of intensive work.

Lange: Out of what I have, out of what I have,

I would like one of those walls to be centered,

and to speak about my own life here in this place.

It's a great thing to decide where you live.

It's a great thing.

This is the photographer's environment.

It started by being a --

You know I had that "home is where" --

But where is it, you know?

It's a very deep and complicated subject,

especially a family like ours,

which is, for want of a better word,

I'd say irregular and extended.

We've lived in this house since 1941, I think,

and many have grown up here,

left here, returned here with their families.

This could be an attempt to describe an environment.

That's what it is -- an attempt to describe an environment,

but if I say it's a photographer's environment

then I've named myself wide open, which I like to do.

No, I like to do that rather

than to then probe into other people's environment.

Just start with your own,

and you can only do it in others'

if you have enabled to do it on your own.

Narrator: You really believe in that kind of personal risk-taking?

Yeah, I do. At my age and in my situation,

it's the only chance you ever get.

Oh, my God. Here he comes. [ Gasps ]

Narrator: Dorothea's husband, Paul Taylor,

tried to keep Dorothea on some kind of schedule

for both medication, and even more difficult, feeding.

I'm going to get these on the wall first.

Taylor: And she didn't drink enough yesterday.

Lange: A woman with that apple pie, she was my neighbor,

and there was a well beaten path between our kitchen door

and her kitchen door next door, and it's now no longer there

because she's been gone 10 years,

but she held my home together for me.

When my boys were in high school,

and I was in the hospital for weeks and weeks and weeks,

she held it together for me.

Now, let me have the one.

I don't want that up.

Would you like me to --

Would it be helpful in any way

if I reacted to these things...

Sure, cry out loud.

...without knowing any personal --

Sure. Sure.

Of course. Of course.

Beautiful, you know. That would be all right.

And nothing should compete with them.

They'll make it.


What else? No, all right.

No. No?

I don't like that one.

No. Okay.

I don't think so. All right, I'm willing.

I'm willing.

Provide go on and go back over it,

I don't find that it's getting sterile, you know?

Well, this is just quicker.

Good. I agree with everything you've said.

Possible reactions. I agree with that.

Yes, maybe, yes, and these three, no.

Right, okay.

Beautiful. Okay.

I don't know.

That's a personal thing with me.

It's the crown of a child's head.

It's the most wonderful spot.

This one. Yes, and that one, yes.

That one, I've got to have that one.

Okay. Yes. I don't know.

I couldn't live without all of them.

Nope, I couldn't.

That one of Greg running is -- If I took it out,

it would violate something around this place

because that is almost a motif.

Underneath those three trees is a beautiful statement,

just those three. Mm-hmm.

A beautiful statement.

Can you see that? I can.

Just as they're on the wall there.

Others are big enough.

And you've got the big dark one.

In that case, it would be two trees, not three.


Oh, I think -- Well, maybe not, but I think --

I don't know. I'm just playing with it now.

I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that.

I think I can build a little more out of it, but, okay?

Should we go on? Yeah.

What I want to do now is to decide, from all of these,

which have an Irish mood to them

where it really resides the best,

and how I can find the quality

that I would like to maintain through it.

Something, John, like the quality of the Asian ones,

which is different from anything else on the wall.

I'm a little lost here.

Man: I am, too. I shouldn't have come.

I'm a little occupied.

Sit down quick because it's confusing to have him

come up and come back, come up and go down.

Maybe put this one away and go back to it.

Okay, what's this print?

Put the whole thing away.

Just select the prints and come back to it

because I don't think --

I don't think I'm making it.

Tell me for what reason one-page photograph,

and there was just --

They have a good word, but it's a good word of a person

really wanting to know

what the Dickens he's doing with a camera

when you stand in a strange country

surrounded by people who know nothing that you understand.

What are you doing there for the love of God with a camera?

I mean, that's a fair question.

You know, there is a big difference

between what you choose out of travel

when time has elapsed and what you immediately choose.

Memory and his intuit,

the things that I would put on a wall now from Asia

and the things that I picked

when I first came home from Asia -- oddly different.

Curators, I would like to produce an exhibit.

Heap of minds might be stirred

not by the variety of things that I have looked at

but by the immense variety and richness of human life.

This is not the final step at all.

This is sort of discovering

what the core of this woman's work is about.

I'm sure that this idea takes not only working out

but some reworking.

I've gone through this kind of a process before,

but I have always, most of the time, done it alone.

I think that wall is about something.

I mean, that collection is about something.

It shows an interest in human life.

I think it does, doesn't it?

Or am I kidding myself?

See, that's my bad dream. That's my nightmare.

Am I kidding myself?

Am I kidding myself?

I don't only mean photographically but...shape.

It started by being death and disaster,

by which I meant all kinds of death.

I didn't mean sudden and violent death.

I meant death by inches,

and that was more than I could deliver on.

That was more.

A news photographer could do a great one on that.

Then the word --

One day I was working here, and it came to me --

The deprived and the dislocated.

And then the word came to me -- ruthless and helpless.

And then the phrase that's used by --

I think the sociologists use it -- the walking moonlit.

There's another phrase that was in my mind --

The last ditch.

The last ditch.

Now, this group of pictures is just like

all my groups of pictures.

It just suggests the possibilities of this medium.

It's all I hoped ever to do with this show or anything,

not to achieve it,

but to suggest it to someone else to carry it on,

and that, I think, this wall might do.

I'm not doing it in terms of achievement.

I feel it in terms of possibilities, provocation.

Because when you've heard me say it often enough,

the possibilities of this medium is --

We're just on the threshold of it,

and I'd like to give it a push, slight push,

but on the final wall is something that I'm not sure

I have the material myself, but this I'll have to work on,

and that is a wall on the new California.

This is the unfinished business,

and this is the one where I could not demonstrate

but suggest the possibility of this medium

in revealing...

the passage of time and what happens in it.

I would say this new California is one

for someone else to finish.

I...would love to work in it.

I would really love to work in it.

I can't, but I can start it.

Your viewer -- and these are very mysterious persons --

You have to keep him in mind always, too,

and you don't know him.

When he looks at such a wall on relationships,

what my hope would be that he would say to himself,

"Oh, yes, I know what she meant.

I never thought of it, and I never paid attention to it,"

or it's something like, "I've seen that 1,000 times...

...but won't miss it again. Won't miss it again."

You've told about the familiar, the understood,

but in calling attention to what it holds,

you have added to your viewers confidence

or his understanding,

and the most complimentary thing, in my opinion,

that anyone could ever say to you is,

"I saw something today that you would have liked."

Then you know you've reached him.

In George P. Elliott's introductory essay

to MoMA's catalog for their 1966 Dorothea Lange retrospective,

he writes of Lange, "that she often looks so hard

at the ordinary that it fills with seeing."

Lange's ability to take the seemingly familiar,

like a human face or a barren landscape,

and call attention to what it holds inside

is part of the lasting quality of Lange's images.

In calling attention to this inner life,

Lange adds to our confidence

and our understanding of the world

in ways we may not have imagined.

We hope you've enjoyed this peek into the All Arts Vault.

We'll see you next time.





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