Faces from the dust bowl

Anne Hammond reflects on photographs from the Depression that highlighted the plight of the poor

September 4, 2008

The photographs of displaced American farmers and their families produced by Dorothea Lange in the 1930s may not have reached as large a contemporary audience as they later did when exhibited at the Oakland Museum in 1969 and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1994, but they were instrumental in persuading the US Government of the need for camps to house the dust-bowl migrants trying to make a new life in the West.

Daring to Look publishes, for the first time, 149 photographs taken in California, Oregon, Washington and North Carolina on projects for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1939, and the images are accompanied by 75 caption texts produced by Lange, working with her husband, the economist Paul Taylor.

Driven by a sense of urgency to convey messages of the dire living conditions in the Depression, Lange limited her focus to the faces, gestures and reported speech of the moment. Her variety of documentary might be described as "social reform photography", but the problem with the depiction of people in a demeaned state is that it tends to produce in the viewer not an active determination to rectify the problem but a passive condition of pity. Lange's determination and consistency, however, allowed her to take that risk, for the chance that economic change might improve the lives of the next generation. Perhaps this is why so many of her photographs include whole families, particularly children.

In the 1930s, Ansel Adams developed many of the negatives Lange made in the field for the FSA, and he would go on to collaborate with her on photographic projects in the 1940s.

In 1939, he asked her to put into words her definition of documentary photography for his exhibition at the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition. Written with Taylor, it stated Lange's view of photography as a "tool of social science". Photography of the social scene, as Lange and Taylor conceived it, "mirrors the present and documents for the future".

When Archibald MacLeish conceived his book Land of the Free (1938), a long poem accompanied by 88 FSA photographs, more than a third of which were by Lange, his first thought had been that the photographs could serve as illustrations to his text. "But so great was the power and the stubborn inward livingness of these vivid American documents", he wrote in his afterword, "the result was a reversal of that plan."

Getting the right balance between the verbal and visual elements was crucial, in order to prevent it from turning into a sociological tract. Published in 1939, Lange and Taylor's important book An American Exodus suffered the same problem of providing social information to the intellect on the one hand and arousing emotional reaction on the other.

This first presentation of Lange's 1939 photographs with their accompanying texts provides a very valuable scholarly resource. Spirn's personal contribution, for anyone interested in Lange, comes in the third and final section, which both brings us up to date and reflects upon history, as she photographs sites and descendants of Lange's 1939 subjects.

From her broad knowledge base and sympathetic understanding of the history of the locale, Spirn offers a rich study of past and present life and landscape.

Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs & Reports from the Field

By Anne Whiston Spirn

University of Chicago Press

376pp, £21.00

ISBN 9780226769844

Published 21 July 2008

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