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Photographer Dorothea Lange is most famous for documenting rural upheaval during the 1930s, when economic depression knocked agriculture to its knees.

But despite poor health, she was very productive in the 1950s, compiling five major photo essays — the first of which featured three southern Utah communities. Brigham Young University has reunited many of these images in a new exhibit, "Dorothea Lange's Three Mormon Towns," opening this week at the university's Museum of Art.

In August 1953, Lange and the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams spent three weeks in St. George, Toquerville and Gunlock photographing these rural communities as they grappled with changes ushered in by prosperity. Their goal was to publish a photo essay in Life, although the pair wasn't working on assignment. Lange submitted 135 images, 35 of which the magazine published in a 10-page spread, virtually editing out Adams, said Diana Turnbow, the curator who researched and assembled the show.

And then there was controversy. "They didn't tell anyone they were photographing for Life," Turnbow said. "When the residents found themselves in Life magazine, they were not necessarily happy."

The curator picked 62 images for the show, almost all from Lange's original essay. Just one was shot by Adams — a long-distance view of Toquerville. (Neither of the photos accompanying this story appeared in Life.)

"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 postwar urbanization."

The Lange exhibit is long overdue, said art historian James Swensen. The photographer's original project was never fully aired and reveals little-known sides of two of the nation's most important photographers.

"We tend to emphasize Lange's work during the Depression and Adams' landscapes in the West," said Swensen, a professor of photography history in BYU's department of visual art. "This one falls in a different category. That's another reason it has fallen through the cracks."

Lange, who died in 1965, conceived the project as a collaboration with Adams; her husband, the rural economist Paul Taylor; and her son, writer Daniel Dixon.

"Lange did a great deal of research and thought before she went to Utah," Turnbow said. "The towns were selected because they were contrasting communities. Gunlock was isolated, reflective of the pioneer community."

The town is about 20 miles northwest of St. George, which was just beginning to urbanize at the time, and Toquerville is about 20 miles northeast. Near the redrock uplift that forms Zion National Park, Toquerville was set in a stunning landscape, filled with fruit orchards that were being bulldozed for homes.

It was a place with which Lange, a Californian, was already familiar. She first visited Utah in the 1930s with her first husband, the painter Maynard Dixon, and they boarded their two young sons in Toquerville while Dixon painted in Zion.

During the Depression, Lange photographed in Escalante, Consumers (a disappearing coal-mining town near Price) and Widtsoe, north of Bryce Canyon. Poor health related to childhood polio kept Lange out of action during the 1940s, but her career rebounded in the 1950s. "Mormon Towns" arose as part of Lange's return to photography, but the project, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship she won years before, did not unfold smoothly.

Adams was opposed to not informing residents that the shoot was for a magazine. The fallout resulting from the Life publication prompted a schism between the photographers, then friends and colleagues teaching at the California College of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Toquerville residents were incensed that Daniel Dixon's text characterized their town as fading, with the children moving away.

"Neither [Lange or Adams] were satisfied with how it turned out," Swenson said. Adams "felt they betrayed [their subjects]. Their letters are interesting to read."

Dorothea Lange's 'Three Mormon Towns'

This photography exhibition features images from Lange's 1953 trip to southern Utah with Ansel Adams while the pair were shooting a photo essay that ran in Life magazine. The exhibit features 62 photos of Gunlock, St. George and Toquerville. The prints are drawn from 21 images BYU purchased from the Lange family, while the others are on loan from the family, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Where • Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

When • Friday, Jan. 21, to April 30.

Hours • Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Lecture • Thursday, Jan. 20, 7 p.m., by exhibit curator Diana Turnbow.

Cost • Admission to exhibit and the lecture is free.

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