Students will analyze how photographers depicted the effects of the Depression on Dust Bowl refugees in the United States during the late 1930s.
Barn and Shed of Farm
Time Alloted1 Hour
State Content Standards
11.6.3 Discuss the human toll of the Depression, natural disasters, and unwise agricultural practices and their effects on the depopulation of rural regions and on political movements of the left and right, with particular attention to the Dust Bowl refugees and their social and economic impacts in California.
Empathize, photojournalism, Works Progress Administration (WPA).
1. State: “Both Marion Post Wolcott and Dorothea Lange made strong images of the Great Depression. They shared strong social ideals and the ability to empathize with their subjects. While Wolcott looks at the rural poor in West Virginia’s mountains, Lange turned her eye in this image to the circumstances facing the rural poor of America’s High Plains.”
2. Ask and discuss: “How does each artist tell a story using the camera?”
3. Ask and discuss: “What elements in the image help us understand that story?”
4. Ask and discuss: “What can we learn from these images about the differences between rural life and city life in America during the 1930s?”
3. Research and write a brief comparison:
a. Contextualize these photographs in the Great Depression.
b. Describe how each photograph illustrates the everyday life of individuals working in rural coal mining towns and agricultural areas during the Depression.
c. Describe how each photographer empathizes with their subject. What artistic elements does each photographer use to convey his or her message? Look at composition, color, subject, angle, contrast of light and dark, etc.
d. Judge whether or not you think each artist was effective in conveying their message. State why or why not.
About the Artist:
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895, Dorothea Lange was named Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, but later used her mother’s maiden name. Her childhood was marked by a bout with polio at age seven that left her with a lifelong limp. After her father abandoned the family five years later, Dorothea moved with her mother to New York City. In this new environment, she became an eager observer of the bustling throngs of people and their activities on the city’s streets. “I knew how to keep an expression of face that would draw no attention, so no one would look at me.” Upon completing high school, she announced her ambition to be a photographer.
In New York, Lange became a studio assistant to the well-known portrait photographer, Arnold Genthe (1869-1942). Genthe photographed the city’s elite, and working at the studio exposed Lange to a world of privilege and position she had not known before. She also studied with photographer Clarence White (1871-1925), who saw in photography an art form capable of great personal expression at a time when most regarded photography as only a means for making portraits.
In 1818, Lange left New York with the intention of photographing individuals around the world, but before she left the United States, she decided to settle in San Francisco. In 1919, she opened her own portrait studio in San Francisco. The portraits she made warmly portrayed their subjects, especially her images of mothers with their children. Among the friends she made was the artist Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), an illustrator of the American West. They married in 1920 and had two sons. Lange and Dixon both enjoyed traveling throughout the West, Dixon sketching and painting while Lange photographed the landscape and the people they met.
About Barn and Shed of Farm in the Texas Panhandle, Near Boise City
Lange made this photograph in June 1938 while working for the FSA. That summer Lange and her husband traveled throughout the Southern states. They recorded images of poor land use, such as dusty, crop-less fields made tired and infertile from planting the same crop year after year. They also recorded the soil erosion that resulted from new and unstudied mechanized means of tilling and harvesting. When such conditions combined with drought and high winds, the result was catastrophic dust storms.
Boise City, Oklahoma, along the Texas border, suffered a dust storm in April 1935. A survivor recalls, “Devastation was to be seen at every turn. Not even stubble in the fields remained. I remember it with horror to this day.” Evidence of this catastrophe remained for Lange to photograph months later. Fences have given way, a battered windmill stands inoperable, and farm buildings sink into the landscape. Particularly poignant about Boise City’s loss is the subject of weakened cows unable to graze. Many of Boise City’s citizens, as with many other farmers across Kansas, Nebraska and Texas, were unable to regain their livelihoods. Many trekked to states such as California and Oregon in search of jobs. This massive displacement and movement of the nation’s population is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.
The Great Depession caused Lange to look more closely at the experiences of other people. She saw suffering and poverty on San Francisco’s streets. So moving were her observations that she began to photograph these people and their living and working conditions. When she exhibited these new photographs in 1934, the pictures were noticed by the State Emergency Relief Administration. The agency needed photographers to document the working conditions of the state’s migrant farm laborers and asked Lange to work for them. In early 1935, Lange went on her first trip for the agency. The pictures she made appeared in reports used to inform other government officials about the conditions facing the homeless and impoverished workers that arrived in California from the Midwest during the 1930s.
Lange divorced Dixon in 1935 and married her mentor at the State Emergency Relief Administration, Paul Taylor. During this year she also began to photograph for the California and Federal Resettlement Administration (Farms Security Administration), a leading agency that sought to provide economic relief during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. She traveled to Mississippi, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska and California, documenting heartbreaking conditions of need and despair. Many of her most moving images taken for the FSA appeared in various publications, helping to inform a nation of the hardship, but also instances of enduring pride.
As the country prepared to enter World War II, much of the unemployment and social ills facing the country were mitigated by the growth of wartime industries and the jobs they created. However, new forms of social injustice also emerged. After war with Japan was declared in December 1941, Japanese families all along the west coast were forced to leave their homes and were interred in primitive camps. Lange photographed their plight at Manzanar. As the country changed under the pressures of war, Lange remained a dedicated observer of its social transformations. Her favorite topic to photograph remained America’s rural communities. Lange wrote of her life’s work that “a photographer’s files are, in a sense, his autobiography,” and that while photographs may be “as fragmentary and incomplete as the archeologist’s pot shards, it can be no less telling.”
Therese Thau Heyman, Sandra S. Phillips, and John Szarkowski. Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Chronicle Books, 1994
Dorothea Lange: www.masters-of-photography.com/L/lange/lange_articles2.html (April 2005)
Black Sunday, Boise City, Oklahoma www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_02.html (April 2005)