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Friday, 28 October 2011

Dispossessed: Dorothea Lange


Billboard along U.S. 99 behind which three destitute families are camped. Kern County, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 193[8?]

Rear of billboard along U.S. 99. Three destitute families are camped behind billboard. Kern County, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1938

Billboard along U.S. 99 behind which three destitute families are camped. Kern County, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1938

Missouri family of five, seven months from the drought area. "Broke, baby sick, car trouble." Along U.S. 99 near Tracy, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, February 1937

Missouri family of five, seven months from the drought area. "Broke, baby sick, car trouble." Along U.S. 99 near Tracy, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, February 1937

Tracy (vicinity), California. U.S. 99. Missouri family of five, seven months from the drought area. "Broke, baby sick, and car trouble!": photo by Dorothea Lange, February 1937

Mother of five children from Oklahoma, now picking cotton in California, near Fresno: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1936

Children of migrant Oklahoma family, now living near Fresno, California, picking cotton: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1936

View of Kern County migrant camp, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1936

Water supply. Migratory camp for cotton pickers. San Joaquin Valley, California. American River camp: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1936

Privy in cheap migratory camp. San Joaquin Valley, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1936

Agéd woman from Oklahoma. Kern County migrant camp, California: photo by Dorothea Lange, November 1936

Excerpt from an interview with John Collier, conducted by Richard K. Doud, 18 January 1965 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution):

JOHN COLLIER: ...The [FSA photographers] were a very loose-knit group.... They did share one thing in common, though, but they also shared it with all photographers. They were all involved in the excitement of being there, to go out into the field and go to these places, and interesting events, and record them. Many of them went into being interested directly in a cultural-social phenomenon. Many of them became involved in this area [by] simple happenstance...

RICHARD DOUD: Well what about Dorothea Lange? Do you think she had this feeling?

JOHN COLLIER: She did, but it was much more objective than that. Dorothea Lange was much more of a pragmatist, and Dorothea was much more involved with the intensity of personal feelings now.

RICHARD DOUD: Yes, I think so.

JOHN COLLIER: And the group of people who she apparently related to varied greatly. It must be kept in mind that at one point in Dorothea’s life when she was a child she was hungry, she was born in poverty and she lived in poverty until maybe she was in her teens. And Dorothea Lange mentioned the other day when Roy [Stryker] was there that this experience made her different from everybody else she dealt with.


JOHN COLLIER: And unquestionably the main thing that could happen on Dorothea Lange’s life was an attempt at transference of identification with poverty, with hardship, because prior to the Farm Security Administration, prior to her meeting Paul Taylor, Dorothea Lange was a highly-paid, rather slick portrait photographer of wealthy women, and she made a good living at it. She was a very good craftsman; she did beautiful work. I had never seen any photographs up to that period that showed that Dorothea’s in particular had anything to say about anything in her life. She was pretty self-centered, and a little selfish, and indulgent. About that point she looked down from her window on Sacramento Street and saw a breadline of men lined up going to the hall of Justice and something about it triggered some dedication in her. And she walked out of her studio and she figuratively never came back, you know. She went down and made her photograph of that breadline right under her window, you see, and Dorothea became carried away with the necessity of the times. Interestingly enough, her husband, Maynard Dixon had already been deeply involved in this. I thought he was more involved than Dorothea. From the studio at that period he made a painting, a very documentary painting of a stumblebum on the railroad track, you know, with his pack on his back walking down the rails. A very intensely related painting, a very documentary painting of the Great Depression. And this, I’m sure, affected Dorothea too, and then she saw what was going on around her. I’m a little vague about the wheels of history at that point but apparently she made the motions of getting involved with active work at that point. She met Paul Taylor and did an assignment with him and apparently was carried away with the drama, the excitement, of direct involvement in what was going on, and became an intensely dedicated observer of one phase of the Great Depression; particularly, the great tragedy of depression and hardship and she did it ably and with a high level of rapport with people. And I think part of this was due to the fact that Dorothea Lange as a child had been very poverty-stricken in the slums of New York.

RICHARD DOUD: Do you get the feeling that she would almost have to have an empathy with these people to the job she did?

JOHN COLLIER: Well, she did largely because of her early life, and this theme Dorothea Lange has sustained up to the time when her last photographs were made. It was the theme in Korea, and the theme in Egypt, and the theme in India. She gravitated toward this level of humanity that lived in the state of intense physical and social suffering and saw gallantry and beauty and hope in them, and felt it of great importance that these images must be looked at. Now possibly this one statement may sum up better than anything else the dedication of the Farm Security photographers –- you asked whether they were culturally-oriented. I said as a group they weren’t. But they shared in common a faith that the images should be seen; they were a very enthusiastic, very hopeful group of photographers who felt that what they were doing was going to have, and did have, a great effect on people. They had faith in the visual record that this nonverbal evidence might do something where nothing else would. Therefore, they were social and did a social welfare job, and all the ones that I knew, any of them, whether it be [Jack] Delano or [Russell] Lee or [Marion] Post, they all had this thought in the background, that every photograph they made had some essential and secret purpose and would do something for somebody someday.

RICHARD DOUD: It was never just a job in any sense, then?

JOHN COLLIER: No. It was not a job. It was a devotion that everyone shared...

Photos by Dorothea Lange from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress


gamefaced said...

coming soon to a small town near you!

TC said...

footsteps heard near the quaking heart of the urbs as well

Barry Taylor said...

Almost unbearable to see the father checking the baby's hat, that it's giving enough cover from that merciless sun, which of course it isn't. Just as it's unbearable to be looking at the utter nakedness of the man washing himself in the ditch in the Matt Black shot. Still, somehow, taking care.

Nin Andrews said...

I always think of Lange's photo of the migrant mother when I think of her . . .
I remember my dad, who never recovered from the depression (he was born in 1915), saying that he thought we had somehow learned our lesson--as if the next depression or war could be avoided . . .
As if our idiocy were something that could be corrected, as if . . .

TC said...


I think it's the taking of care that's the forlorn hope in the battle to retain some small shred of human dignity.

All these wars are lost, but in the act of attempting to stand against the tide, a gallantry.


So many families (and hearts) were broken on that wheel, one might think the vehicle ought to have been junked for good and all.

But it's the only model this country has ever had, and obviously it suits that nano-fractional % of the citizenry just fine.

Here it's careened off the road again, and this time, "no one to drive the car".

But hey, it's been a great week for The Market.

Full speed ahead, pedal to the floor.

What cliff?

TC said...

Could that be what was meant by Travel While You Sleep?

(Always hard to sort the zombies from the sleepwalkers.)

John Sarsgard said...

Just another Reminder of a government at least trying to get people working again, in stark contrast to the do nothing Congress of today.

TC said...

Yes, John, for sure.

The whole atmosphere and attitude reflected in the FSA photo files is constructive and progressive, with a general spirit of freedom and community at once, artists working toward social change at a high creative level, for practically nothing.

That such a project should exist in government as today constituted is pretty much unimaginable.