Sample text for America through the lens : photographers who changed the nation / Martin W. Sandler.

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DOROTHEA LANGE: Bringing Relief to Millions

"Their roots were all torn out," wrote Dorothea Lange. "The only background they had was a background of utter poverty . . . I had to get my camera to register those things about those people that were more important than how poor they were - their pride, their strength, their spirit." The people Lange was talking about were the hundreds of thousands of Americans who, in the 1930s, has lost almost everything they owned when their once-rich farmland turned to dust. The pictures she took made the nation aware of their plight and earned her the title "humanitarian with a camera."

Lange began her photographic career in San Francisco, where she opened a portrait studio. Most of her clients were very rich, and by the end of the 1920s, her business was prospering. But despite the wealth of those who sat before her portrait camera, millions of people were suffering through one of the most difficult times in our nation's history. The collapse of the stock market in 1929 had led to the closing of thousands of businesses, throwing much of the nation out of work. People who had been successful suddenly found that they had no jobs and no money. Many became homeless, forced to roam the streets in search of work.

Although Lange continued to take portraits in the comfort of her studio, she grew increasingly aware of the plight of these people. She began spending more and more time roaming the streets photographing them. Actually, she had become bored with taking portraits of the rich. From the moment she started taking her street pictures she realized that she had found her true purpose in photography. She would use her camera to draw attention to the heartbreaking situations of those caught up in what was now known as the Great Depression.

Lange threw herself into her new-found work with a passion. "It was her intention," stated one of her close friends, "to motivate change with every picture she took." Soon Lange's pictures succeeded in capturing the attention of officials in the government, particularly a man named Roy Stryker. He was head of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). His job was to direct a group of some of the finest photographers in the nation as they captured images documenting the effect of the Depression on one enormous segment of the population in particular : the farmers.

By 1933 American cities were feeling the full effect of the collapse of the stock market. But in the southern plain states another type of disaster was taking place. For two full years that 97-million acre section of the country had gone without rain. The drought was so severe that the once-rich topsoil in such states as Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico turned to dust. When the dust was lifted into the air by the relentless prairie winds, huge storms were created that turned the entire region into a gigantic dust bowl.

With the soil gone, millions of people lost the farms that had been in their families for generations. Hundreds of thousands took to the road and headed for California and Oregon, looking for work picking fruit and vegetables. It was a terrible situation that got even worse when, after making the difficult journey, most of the migrants found there was little work for them-and what work there was paid extremely low wages.

Clearly something had to be done. But before that could happen, the government had to be made fully aware of just how desperate the situation had become. That was why the FSA had been created. It was also why Roy Stryker, impressed with Lange's pictures of the disadvantaged people of San Francisco, offered her a job with his team. What Stryker could not know at the time was that Lange would produce many of the most important pictures of the entire photographic project.

Lange began her work with the FSA in 1935. For the next six years she photographed the Dust Bowl victims in 22 states. She captured images of families on the road in their battered cars as they tried to make their way West. She photographed them in the tent camps they set up once they reached the fields and orchards. And she took pictures of them as they picked the crops.

From the moment that Lange began taking photographs of the dispossessed people she was aware of the importance of her pictures. She knew that there were people who had criticized the FSA project, stating that it was really a propaganda campaign on behalf of the government's relief programs. Lange actually welcomed the criticism. By this time she had become convinced that the highest purpose to which the camera could be put was that of bringing about needed change. To Lange, propaganda, put to the right purpose, was both useful and necessary. "Everything," she later wrote, "is propaganda for what you believe in actually. I don't see that it could be otherwise. The harder and more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you're a propagandist . . . I have never been able to come to the conclusion that [propaganda is] a bad word."

Lange was also aware that in order to get the type of images she desired, she would have to earn the trust of the Dust Bowl victims. "I had begun to talk to people I photographed," she later explained. "For some reason, I don't know why, the people in the city were silent people, and we never spoke to each other. But in the migrant camps, there were always talkers. This was very helpful to me, and I think it was helpful to them. It gave us a chance to meet on common ground."

Lange's friend Roy Partridge described how she put this approach into practice. "She would walk through the field and talk to people, asking simple questions. What are you picking? . . . How long have been here? When do you eat lunch? . . . I'd like to photograph you, she'd say, and by now it would be 'sure, why not,' and they would pose a little, but she would sort of ignore it, walk around until they forgot [her] and were back to work. Then she would begin to take her pictures."

The photographs she took in the fields and camps and on the roads captured not only the fear and despair experienced by her subjects, but also the dignity and courage with which most of them endured the conditions that had been forced upon them. Above all there was a compassion and sensitivity in the pictures that lifted them above simple documents of a particular time and place.

Much of this sensitivity was spawned by Lange's own difficult childhood. She'd had a bout with polio at the age of 7 that had left her with a permanent limp, and her father had abandoned the family both her and her mother when she was 12, both of which undoubtedly helped her understand the suffering of others. Her experience in meeting and photographing the homeless and jobless in San Francisco had also affected her deeply. Whatever the cause, Lange's pictures reveal that she cared deeply about the people in her photographs.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the picture Lange took of a mother and her three children seated in a tent in a migrant worker's camp. "I did not ask her name or her history," said Lange. "She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from the car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it." The photograph, which Lange titled "Migrant Mother," is today regarded not only as the most outstanding of all the Depression Era pictures but also as one of the most powerful photographs ever taken.

Of all the people that Lange photographed she was most taken with the women and the way in which, despite all that had been lost, they were determined to hold their families together. "Migrant Mother" was but one of hundreds of photographs that Lange took of farm wives and mothers, women whom she was convinced were the backbone of the nation. "These are women of the American soil," she said. "They are a hardy stock. They are the roots of our country . . . They are not our well-advertised women of beauty and fashion ...These women represent a different mode of life. They are of themselves a very great American style. They live with courage and purpose, a part of our tradition."

Shortly after they were taken, "Migrant Mother" and scores of other of Lange's photographs were widely published in newspapers and magazines. The pictures quickly captured the attention and emotions of the entire nation. One of the immediate results of the pictures was that local and national government officials, shocked by the conditions under which the displaced families were living, immediately began erecting migrant camps to house them. These camps contained running water, toilet facilities, and other necessities that were sorely lacking in the places where the migrants were first forced to live. Most important, Lange's photographs called attention to a human disaster that, in the words of one U.S. Congressman who saw them, "must never be repeated in this country again." Soon Congress began passing relief bills aimed at supplying financial aid to Dust Bowl victims.

The photographs brought about other results as well. The pictures that Lange had taken early on of the family farms turned to dust, for example, had a special impact. Government agricultural experts began initiating programs designed to teach Southwestern farmers how to prevent the soil erosion that had brought on the disaster. Farmers learned how to rotate crops so those that robbed the soil of nutrients would not be planted year after year. They were also taught which crops were actually beneficial to the soil.

Lange's photographs also affected the world of literature. Author John Steinbeck was so moved by the images that he was motivated to write The Grapes of Wrath, regarded as one of the most powerful books ever written about the human condition.

And of course the pictures had a profound effect on the world of photography. Dozens of young photographers, influenced by the power of Lange's images and the changes they inspired, began taking pictures of other conditions they felt needed correcting.

For Lange, the success of the Dust Bowl pictures was an affirmation of what she believed was photography's greatest gift : its ability to change the way people viewed the world. "The camera," she stated, "is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."

Copyright © 2005 Martin Sandler
This text is from an uncorrected proof.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Photographers -- United States.
Photography -- United States.