Artist Profile / History / Political

Dorothea Lange: Archive as Art

by Beth Cody

They say history repeats itself. Over the last few months my law background and the discovery of Dorothea Lange’s WWII photography have lead me to fear this may be true. Recent calls for a Muslim registry in our country made me think about the Japanese internment camps of 1942; with some registry advocates pointing to the WWII Japanese internment as solid precedent for their current plans (


The Mochida children, of Hayward, CA, tagged like baggage, awaiting evacuation. One sibling holds a sandwich given to her by a local church group. Sourced from article.

I first learned about Japanese Internment as a law student reading cases for my Constitutional Law class in the 1980s. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt (yes, he was a Democrat and this action would cross party lines) approved  the idea of rounding up all people of Japanese descent—they were mainly on the West Coast— and placing them in relocation centers. There were 120,000 people interned, 62 percent of whom were United States citizens. (They were to be referred to as evacuees going to relocation centers, not internment centers or concentration camps; the word camp was forbidden.) As it turned out, Japanese Americans were not a security threat. The FBI and the FCC found no communication that would be considered espionage. At the time I was surprised to learn about the legal precedent and thought I would circle back to this topic someday.

That circle recently closed for me during the 20th Century Art class for my MFA  with the discovery of Dorothea Lange’s work. Images of this era appeared before me as I was working with fellow students on a virtual art exhibition. (Click here to view our project)


Sourced from PBS – The Antiques Road Show – The Story of the “Migrant Mother”

As it turns out, famous photographer Dorothea Lange, known for her Dust Bowl photographic series, was also hired by our government to document the Japanese internment process. As you may have guessed, Lange did not execute the work according to the specific instructions requested of her. Instead, she left us a provocative treasure in her images.

Lange, living in the Bay Area at the time, was hired to show the public that the military was not torturing or otherwise improperly treating the evacuees. At first she photographed the “assembly centers” in the Bay Area where the internees wore tags while being checked in.  Later, Lange headed south to  Manzanar, the first camp to open. She was forbidden to take photos of barbed wire fences, watchtowers, and armed guards. Lange was also followed by a government censor- who harassed and discouraged her from taking any photos of people. Despite this, she did find a way to depict the individuals and families who were forcibly relocated.

On July 30, 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) laid off Dorothea Lange “without prejudice,” adding that the cause was “completion of work.” Lange’s experience in the past had been that her famous midwestern images, created under the Farm Security Administration (FSA), easily found their way into the public arena. These photos remain well-known even today, including “Migrant Mother,” above. The WRA impounded the majority of her photographs of Manzanar and the forced detentions, keeping them from public view. Luckily, and rather secretly, more than 800 of these images were later — without any announcement — deposited as a series in our National Archives.

Lange expressed her sadness in letters; at the time she believed her work was not effective in helping the people she documented. Yet her art survived to tell us all kinds of tales—Lange would be glad that her photos are now on public view. Lange has gifted us with her extraordinary way of seeing people. Over seven decades later her art is still relevant— and sadly telling.


Scene of barrack homes at the War Relocation Authority Center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. A hot windstorm brings dust from the surrounding desert. Sourced from

Article by,
Beth Cody

For more information on this subject check out:

The Images and Stories of Japanese American Internment by Akiko Ichikawa at

Finally, if you’d like to see my PAFA student virtual exhibition that included Lange’s interesting, nearly sardonic use of the flag in one of her photos visit Reframing the red, white and blue.


5 thoughts on “Dorothea Lange: Archive as Art

  1. Our country at the end of WW2 promised it would be engaged and try and determine affects of certain events to prevent what happened because of isolationism. (Poland, France, Battle of Britain, fall of asia to japanese imperial forces). NATO, the UN and other organizations grew out of that realization. Where this all heads im not sure. Its a scary time. The individuals in our intelligence agencies struggle every day to preserve our security in an extremely complicated set of scenarios and situations. The current set of events is incomprehensible.


  2. disperse our forces. be engaged, willing, ready and able to fight and highly mobile. be vigilante and most importantly not ridgid or not scanning the horizon. flexability is an absolute must. nothing remains static.


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