Dorothea Lange found fame on fallow ground. During the Great Depression, she abandoned her portrait studio in Berkeley, California and drove around the West in a Ford Model C taking pictures of migrant workers for the Farm Security Administration. Her images documented more than economic hardship, focusing on individuals. Taken as a whole, her work from the period is a profound and lasting piece of journalism, but her images privileged artistry – “Migrant Mother,” her most famous work, is a delicate portrait – over documentation.
The Dust Bowl had forced farmers and laborers all over the southern Midwest and the South to search farther afield for work. In Arizona and West Texas workers picked cotton and continued on their way west, down U.S. 80 through New Mexico. Lange shot the people as they traveled and the places they ultimately ended up. Desperation is a pervasive theme, but Lange wasn’t merely focused on the crisis before her. “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually,” she told a historian from the Smithsonian near the end of her life.
Her images of the Southwest are unconcerned with the beauty of the place, depicting it as a less of a place and more of a blank space between places. For Lange, who was always hasty to criticize photographers who captured the “obviously picturesque,” New Mexico, West Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California were incubators of a uniquely American form of striving.
Farm Security Administration Casa Grande project, ArizonaBack to top