Mar 9, 2014
Michael Kazin on Dorothea Lange and the Great Depression
Posted on Oct 16, 2009
Framed by two shy or sleepy children, the homeless woman appears to be reflecting on her suffering. Her clothes are cheap and dingy, but the hand resting gracefully on her cheek suggests that poverty can ennoble, even strengthen one who bears no responsibility for her plight. When Dorothea Lange took the 1936 photo, soon dubbed Migrant Mother,” she was in a hurry to get home to Berkeley. It was a cold and rainy February day in rural Southern California, and she was exhausted after spending a month on the road. Lange did not even ask the poor woman from Oklahoma her name—which was Florence Thompson.
But her masterly photo remains one of the handful of cultural icons from the 1930s that continue to shape the way Americans of all ages remember the Great Depression. Like the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” the novel “The Grapes of Wrath” and FDR’s fireside chats, “Migrant Mother” documents the dialectic between a society’s troubles and the determination of its citizens to fight back. We understand that Thompson is an anxious victim, yet she repels our pity. With some help from the New Deal, she and her kids will get over this.
Ironically, the photographer of the impoverished, youthful matriarch spent long periods away from her own growing children. To have the freedom to travel around the country taking photos for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a new federal agency that also employed photographers Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, Lange had temporarily placed her six offspring in foster homes. As Linda Gordon writes in “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits,” “She was exquisitely sensitive to embodied emotion, but she also probably felt the complexity of Thompson’s anxiety because it was hers, as well. Nothing in Lange’s personal life was as fraught as her own motherhood and she lived with contradictory impulses every day.”
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
By Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton & Co., 624 pages
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits
By Linda Gordon
W.W. Norton & Co., 560 pages
Among its many virtues, this biography demonstrates the value of feminist history. For more than three decades, Gordon has been writing fine narratives about such subjects as birth control, welfare policy, family violence and interracial adoption. Her deep knowledge of how the personal becomes historical enables her to understand how a gifted artist managed to produce such memorable, altruistic images—while struggling to navigate her way through marriages to two gifted, ambitious men (the painter Maynard Dixon and the labor economist Paul Taylor) and to control her guilt about often leaving her children for other people to raise.
Lange, born in 1895, did not set out to be a documentarian of the dispossessed. During the 1920s, she earned a comfortable income as a portrait photographer, depicting wealthy residents of the Far West and a smattering of fellow bohemians. Only gradually, as her more lucrative commissions declined, did she train her camera on bread lines, fields and migrant camps. Her marriage to Taylor—a tireless advocate for farmworkers—and her job with the FSA both began in 1935, which also happened to be the year the New Deal turned left and most American leftists signed on to the Popular Front, which encouraged radicals to become boosters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while nudging the Democrats to take more forthright stands against racists, fascists and anti-union businessmen.
Gordon describes how Lange developed a unique style that conferred dignity on her subjects even as it exposed their arduous jobs and miserable homes and surroundings. She took special care to photograph American farmworkers who were black, Latino or Asian. In the South, Lange made images of poorly dressed, handsome black men and women standing in front of shacks and juke joints, “typically contemplative or conversational.” The administration had warned FSA photographers to avoid taking any shots critical of Jim Crow; the white South was vital to keeping Roosevelt’s party in power. But, writes Gordon, the relaxed sensuality of the photos still managed to “convey an anti-racist message.”
In the months just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lange brought the same commitment to the pictures she took of Japanese-Americans in California. She was working at the time for the Army, which was shipping her subjects, most of whom were U.S. citizens, off to Spartan camps far from their homes in coastal cities. By documenting the everyday lives of these people before and after their “relocation,” she again drew attention to the degradation and pride of individuals who didn’t fit the racist myths that had, in part, allowed the government to rip their world apart. The Army, recognizing the critical nature of Lange’s images, impounded them during World War II and then stored them away in the National Archives.
When she snapped what became her most famous photograph, Lange didn’t realize that it too revealed the falsity of racial stereotypes. Along with the millions of people who have glimpsed a reproduction of “Migrant Mother,” Lange assumed that Frances Thompson, like most Okies, was a white woman whose ancestors probably came from somewhere in the British Isles. But Thompson was actually a full-blooded Cherokee; she had been born in a tepee and grew up on a reservation.
Linda Gordon is the biographer Lange deserves. She portrays her as both political heroine and self-centered artist, while carefully explaining how Lange’s difficult personal story—including ailments that made it painful for her to move around during the last 20 years of her life—colored her accomplishments, for good and ill. Gordon also pinpoints the vital part Lange played in New Deal culture, without slighting how her husbands, co-workers, bosses, subjects and the press helped shape her work. And the historian’s prose is both straightforward and evocative, an echo of Lange’s own elegant realism. This is, in sum, a work of dazzling intelligence and quiet beauty.
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