SoMa Narratives

SoMa Narratives

Artist Janet Delaney made her name photographing the same San Francisco neighborhoods in which Dorothea Lange got her start some 70 years earlier. In addition to Delaney’s well-known series of street scenes taken during the 1970s and ’80s—published in a collection titled South of Market in 2013—she has also explored the urban landscapes of New York and rural areas of Central America. Her award-winning photographs have been shown around the world. Here, Delaney reflects on Lange’s influence on her work. 

How is Dorothea Lange a role model for your photography?

In the South of Market project, I was telling the story of people who would be affected by gentrification brought on by the construction of the Moscone Center. My project includes portraits and interviews with people who lived and worked in the neighborhood, as well as images that give a sense of place. I wanted to give a voice to this area that had very little representation in city government or business. 

When I was framing this project conceptually, I researched the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. I combined the formal elements of Evans with the personal narratives of Lange to make a series that I hoped would be both elegant and compelling. Lange’s work was used as a rallying tool to bring attention to injustice. I appreciated how she was able to make beautiful photographs of difficult subjects; that beauty made you want to look and look again, until you saw the complexity of the situations she documented. 

Which of her photographs do you find most striking and why?

When I was working in the South of Market neighborhood, I pored over the photographs Lange made in San Francisco around Howard and Third Street. These are not particularly dramatic or well known, but they are important to me because they represent my home in a former time. 

The series Lange did in Richmond of the shipbuilders has a very different sensibility. They seem clear-eyed and optimistic compared to the work she did for the Farm Security Administration, which is full of compassion for [migrant workers’] hardships. In my current work, SoMa Now, I try to fuse both of these elements—the evidence of distress alongside the scenes of success, as the story demands. 

What aspects of Lange’s approach do you admire? 

I appreciate the way she acknowledges the unremarkable moments of everyday life. She has a series titled On the Street Relationships, which focuses on people walking down the street. There is simplicity to the idea, yet it has a universal statement to make. 

Janet Delaney, Young Woman at Chipotle Lunch Counter, 126 New Montgomery Street, from SoMA Now, 2013. Archival pigment print, 20 x 24”. Lent by the artist and EUQINOMprojects, San Francisco. Photography: Courtesy of Janet Delaney.

Politics of Seeing

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

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