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Exhibition: ‘Dorothea Lange’s Three Mormon Towns’ at Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah

Exhibition dates: 20th January – 30th April 2011

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“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Dorothea Lange

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For a glimmer of understanding into the mind of a master artist go the ‘Exploring Three Mormon Towns’ web page and click on the ‘Original Layout for Three Mormon Towns‘ link at right hand side. View Lange’s conceptual layout for her September 6th, 1954 LIFE magazine photo essay at full screen size. Note the size and placement of the photographs and text especially the use of negative space (as on page 4). Also note the size of the cloud photograph at left on page 5 when compared to the church steeple next to it and the size of that steeple in comparison to the rest of the images. Observe the ascending progression of page 6 with the complex but sympathetic narrative that it tells; the use of gridded photographs on page 7; the bookended lives and church attendance on page 8.

Lange observes the minutiae, the precise details that go to make up the lives of these three towns and puts them together in a wonderful symphony of beautifully calculated, seemingly happenstance associations. Masterful!

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Many thankx to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All photographs by Dorothea Lange © Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor.

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Toquerville, Utah

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Dorothea Lange
‘Doorway, Toquerville, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Mulberry Tree, Neagle Home, Toquerville, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Riley Savage, Toquerville, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Hands, Toquerville, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Eggs, Toquerville, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Collection of John and Lolita Dixon

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“In August 1953, renowned American photographer Dorothea Lange travelled to southern Utah where she met up with her long-time friend Ansel Adams. The two photographers spent three weeks photographing the landscape and people of Toquerville, Gunlock and St. George with the intention of publishing the work in LIFE magazine.

Lange’s enthusiasm for her subject yielded hundreds of photographs from which she composed an extended essay of 135 photographs, including images by Ansel Adams. Thirty-five of those photographs with text by Daniel Dixon appeared under the title “Three Mormon Towns” in the September 6, 1954 issue of LIFE.

“Dorothea Lange’s Three Mormon Towns,” a new exhibition at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, features 21 of Lange’s photographs from this series acquired by the museum. The exhibition also draws from the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago, and the collection of John and Lolita Dixon.

The 62 vintage prints in the exhibition, accompanied by excerpts from Dixon’s original text, examine Lange’s lasting interest in the people of southern Utah and their relationship with the land, their heritage and the transformation of the West in post-war America.

“Subtle and poetic, the series of photographs that has come to be known as ‘Three Mormon Towns’ is a bridge between Lange’s famous Depression Era photographs and her detailed photo essays of the 1950s,” Diana Turnbow, Curator of Photography at Brigham Young University Museum of Art, said.

Utah attracted Lange’s interest when she and her first husband, Maynard Dixon, spent the summer of 1933 camping and working in Zion National Park. She originally intended to photograph southern Utah with the support of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1941; however, a family crisis, followed by the onset of World War II prevented Lange from traveling to Utah. Yet, the desire to photograph the Mormon towns of southern Utah never faded. In 1953, Lange returned to the place that had captured her attention decades earlier.

“While Lange’s photographs depict communities bound together by hard work and religion in the formidable landscape of the Colorado Plateau, they also explore the changes that were beginning to affect not only Utah, but rural communities throughout the United States,” Turnbow said. “‘Three Mormon Towns’ was a study of contrasts – of old and new, of quiet villages and a growing city, of deep roots and transient highways. In this series, Lange memorialized the dignity and simplicity of agrarian life in light of post-war urbanization.”

Published in the September 6, 1954 issue of LIFE magazine, the series of photographs that has come to be known as “Three Mormon Towns” bridges Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression era photographs with her detailed photo essays of the 1950s. Featuring sixty-two vintage photographs from the series, this exhibition considers Dorothea Lange’s lasting interest in the people of southern Utah and their relationship with the land, their heritage, and the transformation of the West in post-war America.

Known for her candid and sympathetic depiction of people, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is one of the most revered photographers of the twentieth century. For over four decades she explored the human psyche through portraiture and documentary photography. The probing portraits of her early career prepared Lange to photograph the people involved in the tumultuous events of the San Francisco labor strikes of 1934, the Great Depression, and the Japanese internment during World War II. Her 1935 photograph, The Migrant Mother, is one of the great icons of the American century.

In the 1950s, Lange began to create photographic essays for the popular picture and news magazine LIFE. She eventually completed five major essays for publication, with two of the essays, including “Three Mormon Towns,” printed in LIFE. In addition, Lange was a founding member of Aperture magazine and played a role in organizing the influential “Family of Man” exhibition that premiered in New York in 1955.

In the later part of her life, Lange photographed and traveled extensively with her husband, Paul Taylor, in conjunction with his work in international development. Her photographs of South America, Africa, and Asia were deft and subtle, exploring a rich visual landscape populated with diverse objects and people.

In 1964, Lange was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sustained by determination, she worked steadily to complete a number of projects including a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She passed away on October 11, 1965, content with the life that she had been able to live.”

Text from the Brigham Young University Museum of Art website

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Gunlock, Utah

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Dorothea Lange
‘Sky and Clouds, Gunlock, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Jake Jones’ Hands, Gunlock, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Horseplay, Gunlock, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Four Young Riders in Summer’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago

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Dorothea Lange
‘Couple Seated on Porch, Gunlock, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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St. George, Utah

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Dorothea Lange
‘Anne Carter Johnson, St. George, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Dorothea Lange
‘Young Woman, St. George, Utah’
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
righam Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley

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Brigham Young University Museum of Art
North Campus Drive, Provo, UT 84602-1400

Opening hours:
Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m

Brigham Young University Museum of Art website

Dorothea Lange’s Three Morman Towns website

Original Layout of Three Mormon Towns in LIFE Magazine

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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