Light in the Valley

Light in the Valley

Following in Dorothea Lange’s dust-covered footsteps, photographer Ken Light turned his lens on the complexities of modern agriculture in California’s Central Valley. He followed the publication of Valley of Shadows and Dreams in 2012—an exploration of the region coauthored with his wife, Melanie—with an exhibit at OMCA under the same name. As the Reva and David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and director of its Center for Photography, Light has also tackled the subjects of coal mining in West Virginia, poverty in the rural South, and inmates on death row in Texas. Here, he discusses Lange’s continued impact and the place of art in social justice.

How do social issues affect your work, and how does the influence of photographers such as Dorothea Lange come into play?

Ever since I first picked up a camera, my goal has been to show the issues and stories I feel are overlooked—people in need of justice and to have a voice in our world. My camera has been my way to look at social and political issues in America.

Dorothea’s photographs of the West have been in my consciousness since I arrived in California. How could they not be? She pushed against the West Coast photography aesthetic that Ansel Adams and Edward Weston had established, and turned to humanism and the real world around her. For a young social photographer just starting out—like me in 1969—she was a model to emulate and follow. 

Why do you think Lange’s photographs resonate today?

The struggles of life, and the pain and tenderness that Dorothea portrayed in her best photographs, continue to be felt in twenty-first-century America. The moments she photographed are so universal, and we still see them around us. We can find comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our struggles and that the circle of life does not change a great deal, even though we live in a more modern time.

What can we learn from her style and approach?

The visual foundation that Dorothea laid with her work created a road map for how to touch the human spirit with an image: the small gestures that showed hope, the beautiful light and shadow that framed her subjects, the compositions that had hidden elements [that were] evident if you looked closely. All these things are learning moments that can be observed in her work. 

Ken Light, Food Line, 2009. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16” sheet. Lent by the artist. Photography: Courtesy of Ken Light.

Politics of Seeing

Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs are both works of art and an inspiring call for social justice.

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