When Christina Gardener wrote captions for Dorothea Lange’s photographs in 1943, she used shorthand and kept the backup notes for two days only; with the enormous work flow, saving it all didn’t make any sense. Then 22, Gardener didn’t know that she was dealing with posterity.
On Saturday, almost seven decades later, Gardener, 91, held the historic pictures up to illuminate the times behind the moments frozen on silver paper — the sadness of the times, the round-the-clock frenzy of the work, the money and the lives of the photographers taking the pictures — for a rapt audience at the Richmond Museum of History.
In the museum, where Lange’s 21 pictures of Richmond taken during the ‘40s were exhibited
for the first time in Richmond, Gardener was the main attraction, talking about Lange and her friendship and disagreements with fellow photographer Ansel Adams.
“D inclines to tell A what to do,” Gardener read from one of her notes. “She treats Ansel like a baby brother, telling him what to do. He has great respect for her work although he makes horrible comments on it.”
Lange and Adams both worked in Richmond in 1942-43 for the War Relocation Authority and then in 1944-45 for an assignment for Fortune magazine. Before that, Lange worked alone in Richmond in 1942 to photograph the relocation of Japanese citizens to prison camps during the war.
Richmond was a different place then — working around the clock, abuzz with bars, restaurants, 24-hour movie halls, and the fat paychecks from the productive shipyard that helped America sail through the war. The war that annihilated much of the world brought life and prosperity to Richmond, and the city held a promise for people who came in from the Midwest and other places where they worked on $4 a day; in Richmond, they earned 10, 20 times more. And Lange’s pictures of Richmond show the shipyard shifts, the trailer camps, movie houses, bars, MacDonald Avenue and lovers on the street.
Rondal Partridge, 94, also worked as an assistant to both Lange and Adams. He drove Lange around at 15, and carried Adams’ “huge” tripod and camera on his test assignment as they climbed 5,000 feet in the high Sierra to take pictures of nature.
“I learned from them both,” Partridge said. “They were both so good in their different ways.
“Ansel once complained to me, and he said it to Dorothea too, that he didn’t understand why she took all these pictures of dirty, sad things. Why can’t she see all the beauty around, there is so much beauty,” Partridge said. “Ansel himself never photographed a fence, a street, drunk people or junk and so he couldn’t understand. He was an art photographer, she was a people’s photographer.”
The Richmond Museum of History purchased 300 negatives of Lange’s photographs from the Oakland Museum of California, to which Lange’s husband donated thousands of her pictures. The exhibition runs through December.
“She is one the best American photographers ever and it made perfect sense to exhibit her pictures of Richmond in Richmond,” said Joseph Fischer, the guest curator of the event and one the directors of the museum. “She was interested in capturing the ordinary reality of people in trouble and that makes her great and important even now.”
The “ordinary” people of Richmond, though, weren’t well-represented at the kickoff event showcasing their history. The performance featured dancers from El Cerrito High school, and the pre-event wine and cheese was enjoyed mainly by visitors from Oakland, Berkeley, and elsewhere in the East Bay.