Grapes of Wrath Billboard 1939
Dorothea Lange interviewed by Richard K. Doud, New York, N.Y., 22 May 1964: from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (edited excerpts from interview transcript)
DOROTHEA LANGE:... I have it too, that problem that we share with millions of others. It takes a lot to get full attention to a picture these days, because we are bombarded by pictures every waking hour, in one form or another, and transitory images seen, unconsciously, in passing, from the corner of our eyes, flashing at us, and this business where we look at bad images -- impure. I don't know why the eye doesn't get calloused as your knees get calloused or your fingers get calloused, the eye can't get…
RICHARD K. DOUD: I hope we're not losing any of our sensitivity.
DOROTHEA LANGE: I think we are. I think we are. We are misusing the language of picture, and I tell you, it's an exploited medium. It is not a developing medium; it's being destroyed. That's what I meant.
Roadside Family c. 1938
RICHARD K. DOUD: ...I want to get back into the work you eventually did in the field. I've always been intrigued by the fact that you people could go out in a part of the country that you'd never seen before, you knew nothing (or very little) about, and could do such a sensitive job, and such an all-encompassing job of photographing it. I'd like to know a number of things. First, how did you approach a specific assignment, and once you were there, and this is hard to say, I know, but how did you decide what pictures to take? You couldn't take everything; you couldn't take every person. Yet it seemed that each of you had a knack of always taking the right things. Was there a secret formula there, or was it again your instinct you mentioned before?
DOROTHEA LANGE: Well, you've put your finger on the heart of the Farm Security Administration venture. Because it's almost inexplicable, that particular -- you know there is a word élan.
Revival, around Dos Palos [California] 1938
... a person expands when he has an important thing to do. You felt it. When you were out in the field -- you asked me the question of how you went about it, because you were almost always alone, unknown, very often unprepared for, turned loose, really, with a background where something is expected of you. Not too much. You found your way, but never like a big-shot photographer, not as the big magazine boys do it now. Not that way. We found our way in, slid in on the edges. We used our hunches, we lived, and it was hard, hard living. It wasn't easy, rather rough, not too far away from the people we working with. We had better food, and we slept in better beds and so on; we weren't deprived, really, but you didn't ever quit in the middle of anything because it was uncomfortable. And with the actual people, you worked with a certain common denominator. Now if they asked who you were, and they heard you were a representative of the government, who was interested in their difficulties, or in their condition, it's a very different thing from going in and saying, "I'm working for Look magazine, who wants to take pictures of you." It's a very different thing. That is, your whole, I would say the key in which it's written, like a musical sheet, is different. We were not spotlighting, but more unobtrusive. That applies to me and I'm sure to the others. We photographers were somewhat picked at random, we weren't hand-picked. We were educated on the job.
Drought Refugees [Imperial Valley] c. 1935
RICHARD K. DOUD:...I've always found it rather strange that you could photograph individuals in some of the distressful conditions I know you found them in. Were you ever refused permission to photograph?
DOROTHEA LANGE: Oh yes. Oh yes.
RICHARD K. DOUD: You found certain areas of resentment toward --
DOROTHEA LANGE: Not areas, individuals. Naturally that couldn't be avoided, but you almost always sensed that, before it became explicit. I mean, you go into a room and you know where you're welcome; you know where you're unwelcome. You -- well, here I am talking about instincts again. But you find your way. Sometimes in a hostile situation you stick around, because hostility itself is important.
RICHARD K. DOUD: That's right.
DOROTHEA LANGE: The people who are garrulous and wear their heart on their sleeve and tell you everything, that's one kind of person, but the fellow who's hiding behind a tree, and hoping you don't see him, is the fellow that you'd better find out why. You know, so often it's just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust; sitting down on the ground with people, letting the children look at your camera with their dirty, grimy little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you let them... I have asked for a drink of water and taken a long time to drink it, and I have told everything about myself long before I asked a question. "What are you doing here?" they'd say. "Why don't you go down and do this, that, and the other?" I've taken a long time, patiently, to explain, and as truthfully as I could.
Doorstep of Church [San Joaquin Valley] April 20, 1939
RICHARD K. DOUD: I'd sort of like, if you don't mind, and you might, and I'll understand if you do, to ask you to recall just one or two really memorable experiences, or the first thing perhaps that comes to your mind when you think of Farm Security in relation to the experiences in the field, or whatever experience might pop out when you think of Farm Security now, and what it means to you in retrospect. Is this asking too much?
DOROTHEA LANGE: There are so many levels on which I could answer that. One of the weekends that I find I think of often with some satisfaction, is a weekend in April of 1934 or '5, I don't remember which now, when I went down to Imperial Valley, California, to photograph the harvesting of one of the crops; as I remember now, it was the early peas or the early carrots.
Imperial Valley, Housing and Sanitation -- March & April 1935
The assignment was the beginning of the migration, of the migratory workers as they start there in the early part of the season and then as they moved up. I was going to follow it through. The story of migratory labor in California is an old story. I had completed what I was going to do, and I started on the way home, driving up the main highway, which was right through the length of the state, and it was a very rainy afternoon. I stopped at a gas station to get some gas, and there was a car full of people, a family there at that gas station. I waited while they were getting their gas, and they looked very woebegone to me. They were American whites. I looked at the license plate on the car, and it was Oklahoma. I got out of the car, and I approached them and asked something about which way they were going, were they looking for work, I've forgotten what the question was at the time, And they said, "We've been blown out."
Imperial Valley April 1935
I questioned what they meant, and then they old me about the dust storm. They were the first arrivals that I saw. There were the people who got up that day quick and left. They saw they had no crop back there. They had to get out. All of that day, driving for the next maybe two hundred miles -- no, three or four hundred miles, I saw these people. And I couldn't wait. I photographed it. I had those first ones. That was the beginning of the first day of the landslide that cut this continent and it's still going on. Don't mean that people haven't migrated before, but this shaking off of people from their own roots started with those big storms and it was like a movement of the earth, you see, and that rainy afternoon I remember, because I made the discovery. It was up to that time unobserved. There are books and books and books on that subject now.
Imperial Valley -- Woman in Camp 1935
...now, the problems are enormous. There is no place for people to go to live on the land any more, and they're living. That's a wild statement, isn't it? And yet, it begins to look as though it's true in our country. We have, in my lifetime, changed from rural to urban. In my lifetime, that little space, this tremendous thing has happened. These people on that rainy afternoon in April were the symbol; they were the symbol of this tremendous upheaval like an earthquake.
The Plains c. 1938
Highway West [New Mexico] 1938