Photography and Civic Engagement
What inspired Dorothea Lange to get out of her San Francisco portrait studio in 1933 and photograph people on bread lines and others affected by the Depression?
At that point, she was supporting her husband, Maynard Dixon, the painter, and her two young boys with her portrait work. Her portrait work was innovative and by no means traditional. She said, “I had proved to myself I could do it, and I enjoyed every portrait I made in an individual way…but I wanted to work on a broader basis.” She felt an urge to document what was going on. Of course, her studio was right in the center of downtown San Francisco and overlooked many scenes of impoverished people. Mostly impoverished men. Women were generally not on the streets, they were trying to hold their families together. She also had friends who were suffering, and she was confronted with the desperation every day. Ultimately, she said, “The discrepancy between what I was working on in the printing frames and what was going on in the street was more than I could assimilate. I knew that if my interests in people were valid, I would not be doing only what was in those printing frames.”
She set herself a goal to go out on the street, photograph, process the film, print it in 24 hours, and get the images up on the walls. That was her “grab a hunk of lightning” moment. One photo that resulted from that first foray out was “White Angel Breadline.”
When did your grandfather, economist Paul Taylor, first see her work and start working with her?
He saw an exhibition of her images of the May Day general strike at William Van Dyke’s studio in 1934. The first time he used one of Dorothea’s photos—“Workers Unite,” of a speaker at a microphone during the strike—was in an article he wrote for Survey Graphic. When Taylor called Dorothea for permission to use the photo, it was the first time they had spoken, and they finally met in person when she passed on the print
He hired Dorothea and a number of other photographers to document a sawmill in Oroville, California, run by a cooperative of workers. It was an interesting time. There were many of these “self-help cooperatives” organized by unemployed workers who bartered their labor for goods as a way to survive during the Depression.
That was when my grandfather and grandmother began working together. I think he was smitten early on.
Before then, Taylor had been shooting his own photos for his reports and articles. What did he think that photos could achieve that his text alone couldn’t?
He felt that statistics and reports were dry in terms of delivering information or making change. He had become a photographer in his late teens, and as early as the 1920s, when he was documenting land and labor in Mexico, he had begun carrying a camera with him to produce illustrated reports from the field. He wanted to make a greater impact and knew he could convey more than statistics with his photographs of what he encountered.
When he saw Dorothea’s work, he knew that, coupled with what he was reporting, her photos could just knock out lawmakers and really make policy change. At that point, my grandmother wasn’t a very political person. She considered herself a craftsman — that was the word she used: craftsman.
How and why did Dorothea begin recording the words of people she photographed?
My grandfather, as an economist, always felt it was important to get the words of the people where he was reporting. He always had a notebook in his hand and wrote detailed comments. That influenced my grandmother. It was a discipline that she wasn’t used to, but she became a good writer and a good reporter on the situations she photographed. She had an amazing ear both for music and for the way people expressed themselves — she was engaged by the idioms of different regions.
She had a quote about the subjects in her photographs: “I never steal a photograph. Never. All photographs are made in collaboration, as part of their thinking as well as mine.”
The first report that my grandparents did together on migration and the conditions in rural California was the Drobish Report, for Harry Drobish, director of the Rural Rehabilitation division of the California State Emergency Relief Administration. Paul hired Dorothea as a “typist” and paid for her film under “clerical supplies” because up until then, there was no budget for photography.
The report, typed by my grandfather, included photos with handwritten captions. The captions were written by Taylor and Dorothea from their notes, but the elegant printing of those handwritten captions were done with help from the artist Maynard Dixon, Dorothea’s first husband. He had a really fine hand. The captions were essential: You can see a photo of a sad-looking family or a portrait of a farm hand, but not until you read the caption do you fully understand the truth behind their situations.
The Drobish Report was the report that Roy Stryker saw that inspired him to hire Dorothea to be part of the FSA team.
Stryker, who hired several photographers to work for the Resettlement Authority—later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA)—was also an economist. Why did he want photographs? How did Dorothea view her role in the FSA’s publicity efforts?
I think Stryker was inspired to create a visual record of America during what was indeed a traumatic time in America’s history. Photography was taking a turn and being used in new ways. The magazine Survey Graphic, which predated Look or LIFE, was combining photographs with text about sociological and political issues. I think Stryker and others were seeing the power of that.
President Roosevelt put Rexford Tugwell in charge of the Resettlement Authority, and he put Roy Stryker in charge of its “Historical Section.” The question was: How do we document this for history? And Stryker did it.
Stryker had managed to find photographers on the East Coast easily enough, but Dorothea was on the West Coast, and he needed someone there—though she would also travel through the South. Stryker’s assignments were not very detailed: “Go here and see what you can find.” Dorothea followed her impulse to discover what was happening. Sometimes my grandfather was with her, and sometimes Rondal Partridge (photographer and son of Imogen Cunningham) was with her, as her camera assistant. Dorothea was tiny and walked with a limp from polio. She used very large cameras and heavy equipment that Rondal helped manage. He would also drive the car. Ron told me Dorothea would say to him, “Slowly, Ron, slowly,” so she could catch details of the world as it passed by their windshield.
The FSA had publicists sending photos to news publications. Wasn’t the Historical Section also defending the work of the FSA, a controversial agency?
They were advocating for change under the auspices of the New Deal. It was very progressive, and yes, controversial. I don’t think of Dorothea as concerned with making an impact, but she wanted to impart the truth. She wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to make sure my photographs are shown to the legislature.” She had an assignment for the government, and she took it very seriously.
I find it very interesting to think about a group of photographers hired on the federal level to document America. It would be very hard to do that today. In the mid-1960s, not long before her death, Dorothea was going to revisit the idea and amass a team of photographers, creating “Project One.” Her idea was to have FSA veterans like herself take on the challenge to look for “a new photographer, a different breed, who expresses his responsibilities to the outside, and if he does this job well, as a byproduct, he creates a work of art.” Sadly, by then, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and her retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art took precedence.
Lange’s 1936 image of Florence Owens Thompson and her children, now known as “Migrant Mother,” may be the most recognizable image in photographic history. It’s also been a target for critics who see photojournalists’ methods as exploitative. Can you explain how Lange made her photos of Thompson?
There were seven images in all. The famous image was the last in the series. As a documentary cinematographer, I find it very compelling to see the whole sequence. I’ve been in unfamiliar situations myself, and you can see her photographic process by looking at her series as a film sequence. You start filming at a distance. Then you get a little closer, people start relaxing a bit, and you get a little closer. And at the end, you know you are there. In Dorothea’s first image, the lean-to shack where Thompson is sitting looks squalid. At the last, you are faced with a remarkable human portrait.
Dorothea never ever posed her subjects. She never asked us, her grandchildren, to pose or change what we were doing. It turned out that Dorothea got the photo caption wrong in the way she briefly described Florence Thompson’s situation: as a “destitute pea picker.” Dorothea didn’t even get her name. Later we learned much more about that day and Florence Thompson. I think Dorothea was exhausted, it was raining, she had to pack up her gear, and she still had hours to drive home alone that night. She didn’t photograph any more that day as she headed for Berkeley.
The “Migrant Mother” image wasn’t even the first image Dorothea submitted to Stryker. She sent two images right away to him and to the local San Francisco newspapers to drum up relief fast for the pea pickers. Immediately, there was a groundswell of support for the farm workers in this pea-picker camp. It was too late to help Thompson: By the time the photos reached the public, she and her family had moved on.
I don’t exactly know why Dorothea held some of the images back, but I suspect they might have been on a different roll of film, or she used a different camera. The first time “Migrant Mother” was published was in Survey Graphic’s September ’36 issue. It was printed full page with a long article by Paul Taylor reporting what the Resettlement Administration was doing to meet the problems of rural people in the West.
Then the image began to catch on. U.S. Camera asked Dorothea for a print of “Migrant Mother” for its annual show of outstanding photographs. And Stryker hailed it as the ultimate FSA photo. He felt it delivered everything he set out to do with the Historical Section.
There is remarkable footage that I have in my film of Dorothea talking about the photo, saying that it doesn’t belong to her anymore, it belongs to the public. The photo was whipped away from her, as it was for Florence Thompson, whose actual identity wasn’t known until years later.
I don’t think Dorothea was trying to make a mark with that photo. I think she saw something profound, went ahead and made the photos, continued, and then went home. And, because technically the image belonged to the government, she never saw a penny from its fame.
What inspired Lange and Taylor to visit the Jim Crow South and report on Black sharecroppers? Richard Wright’s 1941 book, 12 Million Black Voices, used many images by your grandmother. But had they been published previously?
Dorothea and my grandfather traveled three times to the South, first for Stryker. They developed a relationship with it. You have an economist and a photographer trying to express the situations in the South and a country not ready for the images or the captions.
Their main focus was the issue of tenant farming: White Americans who owned land would allow Blacks to farm it and “rent” it. For the privilege, the landowners took a large portion of the crops for themselves. My grandparents witnessed and documented the change from horse and plow to the tractor that could do the work of 8 men and 8 mules. They made portraits of sheriffs, plantation owners, riding bosses, Black day laborers, and elders who had been born enslaved. They used some of the photos in their own reports and in their book, American Exodus. The South was its own world. America is still grappling to understand the same issues.
American Exodus is now considered groundbreaking for its use of oral history and photography. What did your grandparents hope to accomplish when they published it?
Paul Taylor felt his focused efforts as an economist weren’t having enough of an impact. Stryker kept laying off Dorothea for budget reasons. So, they decided to continue with their own research. They had a large body of written and photographic documentation. At that time, a well-documented book, beautifully done, was a very powerful tool.
I think American Exodus is their summing up of what the Depression had wrought, and it put the migrations of the previous ten years in context. The Dust Bowl migration was one portion of it, but so much more had affected human migration since the Civil War and Reconstruction. My grandfather was a big proponent of oral history, and in the book, people describe their struggles in their own words. Dorothea’s compositions put the reader right in the scene. It’s really a masterpiece, and the first edition featured, on the front and back inside binding pages, a stream of compelling quotes from the people themselves.
American Exodus was published in 1941, and it was buried once the war started. It didn’t sell well. It wasn’t appreciated until my grandfather reissued it in the 1970s during the Civil Rights movement.
Can you discuss Lange’s photographs of the forced removal and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? What did the War Relocation Authority want when they hired her in 1942, and why did they fire her?
In reading my grandfather’s letters, I learned that Dorothea and Paul were staggered and furious with Roosevelt for his treatment of Japanese Americans, as a result of the fear produced from the Pearl Harbor attacks. They had neighbors, personal friends, and students of my grandfather who were detained and their families shredded.
Because the authorities in Washington knew her as a competent woman photographer who had worked for the government before, they assumed she would deliver what they wanted: a patriotic view of long-time residents of northern California willingly leaving their homes. Then in the internment camps: See the American flags flying, these industrious people with no one complaining. She set out to do the job at hand, except that she did it with enormous compassion. Dorothea photographed the relocations, but her captions would say, “This is a family that’s been in the country for 100 years. These are upright citizens, they have three kids, a store or farm, and they are losing everything.”
She and my grandfather, I think, were, in their minds, trying to work against what the government was doing to the Japanese Americans from the inside when it came to the internment. These, I think, were some of her most poignant yet angry images.
Dorothea was compelled to sign over all the photos and negatives to the WRA and to swear under oath before a notary that she retained none. Obviously, the War Relocation Authority became unhappy once they began to receive her photographs and the notes she had kept. The story is, about a third of her images were “lost” during a WRA shipment. The rest were quietly moved into the National Archive and not unearthed for years, not until the 70s.
I know that witnessing so much loss and unfair treatment made her angry and upset, and being fired by the WRA was probably no surprise. The trauma of the entire assignment was the beginning of bouts of her illness. What happened to friends and seeing these good families broken up devastated her.
Did she do other photographic projects after that?
She photographed until the very last! After the internment, she turned to civil rights, early environmental concerns, social issues of inner cities, and international photography while she accompanied my grandfather studying land use in Asia and the Middle East.
Can you talk about your grandmother’s photographic style? I’ve thought of her artistic, personal images as separate from her social documentary work, but was beauty important to her in all her work?
There was a drive in her to seek the authentic moment and to strike the gold of truth. She has a wonderful quote that I’ve distilled and repeated many times: “Beauty appears when one feels deeply, and art is an act of total attention.” She had a hard time, and rarely described herself as “an artist.” That would have seemed pretentious. She considered herself a “craftsman.” But she pursued her work with total attention.
Dorothea and photographer Ansel Adams had a loving, life-long debate, arguing about photographic technique and about what a photograph should be: beautiful or truthful? Adams said of Dorothea, “She is both a humanitarian and an artist. Her pictures of people show an uncanny perception, which is transmitted with immense impact on the spectator. She presents the almost perfect balance between artist and human being. I am frankly critical of her technique in reference to the standards of purist photography, but I have nothing but admiration for the more important things— perception and intention… Without propaganda, her pictures tell you of many things with conviction, directness, and completeness. They are both records of actuality and exquisitely sensitive emotional documents.”
She taught me so much, both by observing her in action photographing and by her insistence that I really “see.” When I’d show her something that caught my eye, she’d say, “But do you really see it?” That made me pause every time and look again.
This interview was conducted by Holly Stuart Hughes, Independent Editor, Writer & Grant Consultant, Former Editor-in-Chief, PDN, in August 2022.
Get the latest updates as we examine photography and lens-based media through interviews, lectures, and critical essays.
The programs will include free and open to the public programs and content in 2022-23. Stay tuned for more information as we unfold this exciting lecture series for our audiences.
The Democratic Lens lecture series will include six sections, each with a corresponding humanities theme, historical era, and selection of contributing scholars. In alignment with NEH Special Initiative’s “A More Perfect Union” theme, scholars will present photographs that connect audiences to the diverse cultures, landscapes, histories, and individuals who collectively shaped the nation. The Democratic Lens will prioritize underrepresented histories to emphasize the diversity of the citizenry. We will present accounts that illustrate the challenges our country has endured and the stories of how Americans have worked together to overcome them.
Upcoming Scholar Lectures on November 20, 2022.
Subscribe Now for more information.