Perhaps the most iconic photograph of the Great Depression would not have been produced if Dorothea Lange had not had the instinct to return to a pea-picking camp in Nipomo, California in 1936.
The image – a black and white close-up of a scrawny woman holding a sleeping baby flanked by two other young children – “exists in more formats, prints and locations than (arguably) any other photograph in the world. world,” Museum curator of modern art Sarah Hermanson Meister wrote in a 2018 book about the 20th-century photographer.
Exhibited this summer at the Denver Art Museum in “Modern Women/Modern Vision,” Lange’s photo is remarkably more powerful in person, suspended among the work of other impactful female photographers who also followed their intuition to capture vital images vital to journalism, history and photography as an art form.
“Women embraced the medium early on, in part because photography had fewer barriers to female participation, compared to more traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture,” said Christoph Heinrich, director Frederick and Jan Mayer of the Denver Art Museum.
It is thanks to groups such as The Photo League and Group f/64 – which welcomed women in times when opportunities in the art world were scarce – that some of the world’s most iconic images exist.
The DAM exhibit is divided into six parts, ranging from “modernist innovators” such as documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White who became the first woman to serve as an American war correspondent to contemporary creatives, which includes Carrie Mae Weems and her iconic fictional Kitchen table serieswhere she turned the camera on herself.
“The women working in photography today owe much to the generations that paved the way in the 20th century,” said Eric Paddock, local curator of the exhibit. “The diversity of styles, subjects, techniques and intentions exemplified by the artists in ‘Modern Women/Modern Vision’ demonstrates the determination and inventiveness with which women have pursued their craft.”
For some, it was urban street photography. New York’s unofficial “visual poet laureate” Helen Levitt, who was one of the earliest pioneers of modern street photography, captured brutal working-class neighborhoods over the span of decades with a style of shooting understated that spawned images that were both theatrical and realistic.
For others, the camera and lens have allowed even more creative freedom and traditional techniques have helped evolve photography, pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do. “The Revenge of the Goldfish” – a staged photograph – by Sandy Skoglund, who will also speak at the museum on May 22 as part of the exhibition events, is an easy measure of the number of possibilities that a tool intended to capture the real can have in a furnished space.
“The origins of my interest in mixing the natural and the artificial come from the fact that I am a spectator of myself when I behave in the world. I see myself naturally drawn to very artificial things, almost as if my life depended on it…” she said in a interview 2008 on his art. “To me, a world without artificial enhancement is unimaginable, and harshly limited to raw nature by itself without human intervention…mixing the natural and the artificial is what I do every day of my life, and I hope I am not alone in this process.”
In total, “Modern Women/Modern Vision” offers more than 100 images and a series of programs designed around the exhibition. A full program is available at denverartmuseum.org.
If you are going to:
Modern Women/Modern Vision is on view through August 28 in the Anschutz Gallery at the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building, 100 W 14th Ave. Pkwy. For more information, call (720) 865-5000 or visit denverartmuseum.org. The exhibit is included with general admission: $13 for adult Colorado residents, $18 for non-residents. Tickets for children are free.