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Sunday, 15 August 2010

"We've Been Blown Out": Dorothea Lange


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, 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

One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it. -- Dorothea Lange, as quoted in Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life: Elizabeth Partridge, 1994

Highway West [New Mexico] 1938

Photos by Dorothea Lange from the Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California (Online Archive of California)


Ed Baker said...

from "here":

"But you find your way. Sometimes in a hostile situation you stick around, because hostility itself is important."

to this farther "here:

"One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it. -- "

I got tears TEARS in my eyes!

not so much here photo-images but her attitude which to my mind's 'eye' sees ALL of our ... present arts and attitudes lacking...

especially our written "arts" like poetry...

which to me are ALL-SO "snapshots"

after I blow my nose
and pee

will track this book down

ek cetera

"we was blown away"

you know there are photographs of that actual cloud... when it first approached someone who had a camera! what was it called "Black Sunday"

I wasn't gonna comment
however I was

"blown away" by her words/answers/INSTANTANEOUS reactions



Great to see this, the words behind the pictures -- "the work you eventually did in the field . . . when you were out in the field". . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, crows calling from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

pictures of inspired picture,
last week “in the field”

“time in which” this or that,
i.e., the “punctual now”

grey-white of fog against top of ridge,
line of pelicans flapping toward point

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

"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 ..."

If one looks at this from a wholistic perspective, and Lange seems to have known it as quickly as that first family at the filling station knew their land was finished, seeing it in the mere space of her lifetime, one can only think not "what next" but "is there a next?"

Immediately I think of Stephen Hawkings recent statement about how humans will go extinct without space travel. Perhaps this is too much of a leap and yet ... what she is saying here about her art and the world is powerfully disturbing because it is so true.

Elmo St. Rose said...

just driving home
listening to Jerry Garcia's
rendition of Dylan's
"She's an artist, she don't
look back"
a phrase which may explain
mainstream America's infatuation
with material success in later
decades following the Great
Depression...Certainly agriculture
has come along way with soil
conservation techniques

it would also explain to the
poets of TC's generation who
rebelled against materialistic
ambitions, why their parents
were so hunkered down on
material success

Simonize the car,
a light blue DeSoto

DeSoto in real life
made it all the way
to where I live now
a concern of the
geography poets

Dorn Irby
poets not
in the draught
from the plains
as well
did tell
in occasional
the way looking
back and forward

TC said...

Thanks everyone. I too was moved by Dorothea Lange's words (as well as, of course, by her photos).

For those who didn't know, Lange was born in New York and came West to San Francisco in the 1930s. She worked initially for the Federal Relief Agency, then for the Resettlement Administration which in turn became the Farm Security Administration.

She was first married to the painter Maynard Dixon, then to the UC economics professor Paul Taylor, who informed her views on the sociology and economics of what was happening in America at that time, and with whom she made that first trip down the California migratory work route as described in the interview.

The Smithsonian interviewer, Richard Doud, who had himself grown up in the Midwest in the 1930s, at one point asked this:

RICHARD K. DOUD: I'm not sure I can quite understand how someone who was born and raised in a city could do as sensitive and powerful a job of photographing these people as you did. I'm very sensitive to what you did, but I can't understand how you could have been as sensitive to the situation as you obviously were.

DOROTHEA LANGE: Well, I declare, I didn't know a mule from a tractor when I started.

Curtis Roberts said...

Lange's photographs and her remarkable exchanges with Doud are brilliant and moving, beyond words and images. "We've been blown out". I don't know what to say, really. To hear that expression used literally...

So much of today's and the week's news makes me feel blasted, atomized and disconnected from humanity. The Lange material and being here reconnects me.

TC said...


The Lange interview I too found deeply moving.

The original transcript is very long and the openness and candour on Lange's part disarming in the context of such formal public reminiscences. Extremely, surprisingly honest. She was in the last year of her life and struggling bravely with a condition we know from experience here to be very, very difficult. So there is a courage and directness in the interview that suggests a "last statement" disposition. Toward the end she talks in hard terms about the frustrations she had felt over the years regarding the resistance the FSA project met internally in government, the failure of the project to gain proper circulation, and, above all, the fact there had been in later years no continuity following upon what had been done.

Coincidentally, in researching the life of the poet Olson some years ago, I had occasion to look into the workings of the various New Deal propaganda agencies, of which the Office of War Information (where Olson worked), which succeeded and effectively swallowed up the Farm Security Administration, was the most notable.

It's apparent that the rough and ready spirit and relatively disinterested reporting methods of the photographers and other artists working in these agencies in the early war years was replaced, sometime around 1943, by a more tightly administered, generalized bureaucratic structure and a much more simply and baldly "patriotic" approach to image and word.

Already by the last year of Lange's life her elegiac tone about the work that had been done is laced with some bitterness, in the implicit disappointment that less had been made of the files than might have been, and beyond that, that the project of recording America disinterestedly in images had died around the end of 1942 and never been resurrected.

(By the way, Curtis, sorry to hear about your lousy week. In fact I'd been thinking about you only a few moments before seeing your comment. Not that commiseration is ever of much use but ... a not so great week here either, in fact -- rather dramatically punctuated, in the now receding evening hours, in midst of one's attempt at slow innocuous perambulation of what passes for the "neighborhood", by the less than happy experience of being leapt upon, bitten and thrown to the ground by a sizeable and quite fierce canine of some evidently malign breed, while its owners, two adult females of the species homo sapiens, sat stonefaced in a cafe, clutching their other two canines, looking on. As the melancholy codger lay on the pavement bleeding, a passerby, pausing to assess the scene -- firetrucks, paramedics, police on hand by this point -- bent and said faintly, barely audible, "Hope you know a good lawyer, buddy". Curtis, it must be confessed that at that moment the name that popped into mind was... but then the next earth-to-self lightning bolt that immediately hit was, "wake up, it's not the New Deal any more, Toto".)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


How awful, what a horrific experience. Here in the smallish city of Pittsburgh, more and more 'people' have these attack bred dogs and the owners eyeball you as you walk by, as if to just dare you to do anything (i.e. breath, which usually doesn't occur until a few steps beyond).

I do hope you are resting comfortably and that you recover quickly.


TC said...

Thanks for that, Don. You've got it exactly right. The dog was somebody's private weapon, without the safety catch. My mistake was breathing. My punishment is a knee that looks like minced meat.

The two dames were pretty tough. Gazes of hard steel. I couldn't even get their names. They were gone, into thin air. This is what "community" means around here, now.

As if we did not have problems enough already, like they say.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Damn, to train an animal to do something like that. Very ugly. Devastating. How often these animals turn on their owners - people are stupid as well as vicious. Are you having the wound treated? Do take care of yourself.

You're in my thoughts today.

Curtis Roberts said...

"As if we did not have problems enough already", indeed. On Friday, I drove to Philadelphia to meet with some people at what turned out to be a nice sidewalk cafe on Christian Street, a sort of eclectic area I don't know well. While walking from my car to the restaurant (and then walking back), I passed at least four of these human-plus-attack dog groupings. The owners' weird anti-social intentions were unmistakable and the whole thing is mind-blowing, really. I was happy to drive away unscathed and wish to extend my belated sympathies.

That being said, years ago we owned a lovely, petite Russian Blue cat named U. (We named her after U Thant, the Burmese Secretary-General of the UN, when we thought we were going to acquire a Burmese and later discovered -- to the amusement of some waiters in a Burmese restaurant -- that "U" was an honorific meaning "Mister"; "we are all "U", they told us). Once our neighbor’s son, Gregory, visited us to pick up something for his father. He brought the family dog, a Norwich terrier, and came into the foyer. U, who didn’t know any dogs, suddenly leapt out from under the dining room table displaying a sort of scare/warning cat behavior that I once saw illustrated in a book. The justifiably frightened dog and his owner recoiled and Caroline, who was just as shocked, yelled out “U-sie, U-sie, stop”. Greg looked at her and said: “You named your cat Uzi?”.

By the way, should you ever have any legal questions, please just ask. I may know something useful.

Back to Lange, briefly: she speaks so beautifully and eloquently.



Sorry to hear of your brush w/ that mad beast (and its stonefaced masters), "mind-blowing" as Curtis says -- "we've been blown out". . . . Lange's "hostile situation" takes on some unintended meaning here. Meanwhile, this "attention to a picture" ----


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, green of leaves on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

background under figure seen,
when presence of object

to one in that, may withdraw
from, place of material

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
whiteness of gull gliding toward point

Ed Baker said...


several pit bulls around here.

they are ALL MOUTH.. vice-like jaws and razor-sharp teeth..

big chests chest and mouth take up 3/5 ths of their body..

several pit-bull attacks an children being mauled/killed yearly..

two pit-bulls attacked a little girl playing in her front yard awhile back... the 911 came by the time the police came another neighbor went over to the pit-bull house with a shot-gun and "blew them away"!

these dogs that attacked you.... will do it again.

they should be "put down"

... no two ways about it!

all dogs scare me... dogs are stupid animals

almost as stupid as the owners who train them to shit in their neighbors' yards!

scary stuff... I've been bitten twice... now whenever I walk the neighborhood I carry my cane... the heavy-handled

as we get older well healing fresh wounds
takes longer...

healing old wounds takes even longer..

be well

TC said...

Thanks Ed. New wounds on old guys who should have been carrying their canes (if only for defensive purposes) take doubly long to heal, you're always kicking yourself, over the bandages.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Dorothea Lange was the center of my thoughts until I read of the senseless and terrifying dog attack you survived. Is a sense of responsibility being bred out of us or is that simply not taught anymore? I am glad that you are healing, but indeed, who needs more trouble?

"The beginning of the first day of the landslide that cut this continent..." gave me chills and the remarkable combination of timing and awareness that led Lange to follow the story to its roots.

One doesn't need to know a mule from a tractor to intuit the heart of the story. (Leaving you an updated comment to your reply on an earlier post.)

TC said...

Marylinn, I guess I am pretty naive, but the responsibility question WAS on my mind, what there was left of it, in that unfortunate incident. But I'm afraid the question that was on the mind of the dog owners was not that of responsibility but that of liability, marked by their quick exit, as I lay in the sidewalk.

I am at any rate left with the consequences to mull over helplessly, having paid the price for the crime of being an innocuous elderly city pedestrian.

The personal of course seems very small in comparison with the scale of the drama Dorothea Lange could feel occurring as she met those blown-out people on the roads that day. One day can change the lifetimes of millions. To be in the middle of that sort of thing, sense it happening, feel shaken by it, and yet be able to record it -- I think that is what "momentous" means.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. I am doing a project on Dorothea Lange and this info has been so helpful :)