“I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality. About the last ditch.”
In early March, 1936, Dorothea Lange drove past a sign reading, “PEA-PICKERS CAMP,” in Nipomo, California. At the time, she was working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA), a Depression-era government agency formed to raise public awareness of and provide aid to struggling farmers. Twenty miles down the road, Lange reconsidered and turned back to the camp, where she encountered a mother and her children. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” she later recalled. “She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding field and birds that the children killed.” 1 Lange took seven exposures of the woman, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, with various combinations of her seven children. One of these exposures, with its tight focus on Thompson’s face, transformed her into a Madonna-like figure and became an icon of the Great Depression and one of the most famous photographs in history. This image was first exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1940, under the title Pea Picker Family, California; by 1966, when the Museum held a retrospective of Lange’s work, it had acquired its current title, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California.
Lange had little interest in classifying her photographs as art: she made them to effect social change. Although she had led a successful career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco throughout the 1920s, by 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, she began to photograph life outside her studio. On one early excursion, Graflex camera in tow, she visited a nearby breadline, which a woman known as the “White Angel” had set up to feed the legions of unemployed. This resulted in White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco, a photograph of a man turned away from the hungry crowd, his interlaced hands and set jaw often taken as representative of a collective despair. Lange became increasingly confident in her ability to use photography to confront the urgent circumstances around her, and others—including her future husband, the agricultural economist Paul Taylor—soon recognized her talent.
In early 1935, on Taylor’s recommendation, Lange began to work for the California State Emergency Relief Administration. That summer, the agency was transferred to the RA, which had recently begun a photodocumentary project to draw attention to the plight of the rural poor. (In 1937, the RA would become the Farm Security Administration, or FSA.) Lange worked for the FSA periodically between 1935 and 1939, primarily traveling around California, the Southwest, and the South to document the hardships of migrant farmers who had been driven west by the twin devastations of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. On March 10, 1936, two of Lange’s photographs of the Nipomo pea pickers’ camp were published in The San Francisco News under the headline “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squallor [sic].” The photograph that became known as Migrant Mother was published in the paper the following day, on March 11, accompanying the editorial “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean To This Mother and Her Children?” The same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the State Relief Administration would deliver food rations to 2,000 itinerant fruit pickers in Nipomo the next day.
Lange’s commitment to social justice and her faith in the power of photography remained constant throughout her life. In 1942, with the United States recently entered into World War II, the government’s War Relocation Authority assigned her to document the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, a policy she strongly opposed. She made critical images, which the government suppressed for the duration of the war. Later, Lange accompanied Taylor to Asia, where she continued to take photographs, including ones of the legs, feet, and hands of dancers in Indonesia; she also traveled to Ireland for LIFEmagazine.
In an essay written with her son in 1952, Lange critiqued contemporary photography as being “in a state of flight,” seduced by the “spectacular,” “frenzied,” and “unique” at the expense of the “familiar” and “intimate.” It had become, she wrote, “more concerned with illusion than reality. It does not reflect but contrives. It lives in a world of its own.” 2 Against this trend, she urged photographers to reconnect with the world—a call reflective of her own ethos and working method, which coupled an attention to aesthetics with a central concern for the documentary. “That the familiar world is often unsatisfactory cannot be denied, but it is not, for all that, one that we need abandon,” she argued. “We need not be seduced into evasion of it any more than we need be appalled by it into silence.… Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.” 3
Written by Dorothea Lange
The American photographer used words
to broaden her compassionate vision.River Bullock Feb 26, 2020
How do words and pictures work together? Dorothea Lange took great care in combining photographs with words to communicate the stories of everyday life.
When I began working with curator Sarah Meister on the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, she shared Lange’s reflection that “all photographs—not only those that are so-called “documentary”… can be fortified by words.” With this proposition as our guide, we dove into Lange’s work. We grappled with the many ways that Lange worked with both words and images to shape meaning, but also the ways in which her pictures continue to resonate beyond, and sometimes in spite of, the words that accompanied them. It’s not that Lange’s pictures fall silent in the face of words; it’s rather that Lange thought with great care about how words could support, extend, and “fortify” the reach of her images.
At a moment of contemporary environmental, economic, and political crisis, it feels both timely and urgent to turn to artists like Lange, who documented migration, labor politics, and economic inequities—issues that remain largely unresolved today. Lange was needed in her time, but we may need her even more urgently now.
“Establishment of Rural Rehabilitation Camps for Migrants in California,” report for the
California State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA) by Paul Schuster Taylor, March 15, 1935
From 1935 to 1939, Lange worked with government agencies to draw attention to the economic and environmental crisis of the Dust Bowl drought and the Great Depression. In early 1935 Lange was hired by Paul Taylor and the California State Emergency Relief Administration as a typist—a salary for a photographer had not yet been approved. Working together, Lange and Taylor produced reports pairing his typed analysis with her photographs and handwritten captions, taken from interviews with people they encountered. Lange recounts running quickly to write down the precise words people used to describe their circumstances; these fragments of conversation and individual stories often reveal what isn’t immediately visible: locations, forms of labor, routes of travel, racial and ethnic differences. Together, the words and pictures made the case for government intervention on behalf of migrant workers and drought refugees. The caption, “If I could earn $4.00 a week we could get along” sits alongside a portrait of a father, mother, and their three children—presumably Mexican laborers near Thermal, California, just south of Coachella on State Route 111.
An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, by Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor, 1939
Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s landmark photobook An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion weaves together text drawn from field notes, folk song lyrics, newspaper excerpts, sociological observations, and quotations from the sharecroppers, displaced people, and migrant workers whom Lange photographed. Informed by the methods they used while collaborating on government reports, An American Exodus is a compassionate document of the grim economic and environmental circumstances and personal costs of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Read today, the book appears as a work of love and care for others, but also as a testament to Lange and Taylor’s relationship as partners and lifelong collaborators.
Dorothea Lange. One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco. 1942
Dorothea Lange. “San Francisco, Calif., April 1942 – Children of the Weill public school, from the
so-called international settlement, shown in a flag pledge ceremony. Some of them are evacuees
of Japanese ancestry who will be housed in War relocation authority centers for the duration.”
During World War II, Lange turned her camera to the conflict’s impact on Americans. Some of her most affecting images are of the Japanese Americans sent to internment camps in 1941, after Executive Order 9066 and subsequent orders authorized their imprisonment. Lange had been hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the internment, but the photographs were withheld from circulation. “They had wanted a record,” Lange later recalled, “but not a public record.” In One Nation Indivisible, Lange focuses our attention on a seven-year-old girl, Hideno Nakamoto; she stands amid a group of students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The children gaze upward, presumably at a flag or teacher leading them in the ceremony. Lange positioned her camera low, recording the children at their level; the portrait conveys an earnest innocence that seems to call out the inhumanity of the government action to come.
Other variants of the image, which was taken at Raphael Weill School in San Francisco, also show the girl to Nakamoto’s right: Yoko Itashiki. Subsequently their families were forcibly removed to Tanforan Assembly Center, and then to Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. (In 2007, photographer Paul Kitagaki interviewed and photographed the two Japanese American women. That later portrait stands as evidence of their survival and of this devastating chapter in US history.)
Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials: The Voir Dire Conducted by Charles R. Garry in People of
California v. Huey P. Newton, photographs by Dorothea Lange, edited by Ann Fagan Ginger, 1969
From 1955 to 1957 Lange worked on a photo essay following the day-to-day work of Martin Pulich, a public defender in Alameda County, California. Lange’s research files for the project contain copies of criminal justice reform proceedings of 1955, evidence of her awareness and interest in the public defender’s role and the significance of the federal program. While the public defender program was established in California in 1915, it wasn’t until 1964 that a federal version followed. The photographs never circulated widely during her lifetime, but posthumously, in 1969, the National Lawyers Guild published first a pamphlet and then a handbook titled Minimizing Racism in Jury Trials: The Voir Dire Conducted by Charles R. Garry in People of California v. Huey P. Newton, after the Black Panther Party cofounder’s first trial. Lange’s photograph depicting the battered doors of the police vehicle, which seem to show traces of violent struggle, evoke the racial bias and police harassment described in the text.
Rondal Partridge. Dorothea Lange Studio (Last Ditch). c. 1965. Departmental
Collection, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art
Installation view of Dorothea Lange, The Museum of Modern Art, January 26–April 10, 1966
In preparation for her 1966 MoMA retrospective, Lange worked with curator John Szarkowski on selecting and sequencing pictures for each section. In a section titled the Last Ditch, Lange choreographed a sequence of photographs alongside a first-person text: “I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality. About the last ditch.” We get the sense that Lange is speaking of an effort that extended across her time of making individual pictures; she also began to arrange groups of images in what she called “photographic statements.”
When Lange died just three months before the retrospective opened, I can only guess at the sense of responsibility Szarkowski must have felt in carrying out her vision. In an annotated photograph of the Last Ditch, mocked up in her studio during preparations for the exhibition, Lange’s notes reveal the process of carefully weighing combinations of images, shuffling, editing: below her most iconic image, Migrant Mother, she has drawn a red box and the words “Woman on Great Plains (subst.)”. These words conjure the photograph that was eventually installed on this wall, demonstrating the ways that words and pictures reference, link, and sometimes stand in for one another.
In an interview toward the end of her life, Lange remarked about her work, “You see it’s evidence. It’s not pictorial illustration, it’s evidence. It’s a record of human experience. It’s linked with history. We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures. To tell the truth is in some people’s nature and it can be a habit, but you can also get in the habit of not telling the truth.” Lange’s conviction in photography’s ability to function as a “record of human experience” comes from the position of someone embedded in the experience and the history that she records. Lange remained dedicated to seeing and telling truths over the course of her nearly 40-year career.