Dorothea Lange and the Great American Landscape

Dorothea Lange’s career began in San Francisco as a successful portrait photographer. As the Depression took hold she turned her lens to focus on the street rather than the studio. In 1933, she took a photograph of a breadline which earnt her recognition from Roy Stryker of the Federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

The FSA hired a number of photographers to document the effects of the Depression, particularly in the agricultural areas of the American Mid-West. The aim of the administration was to gain support for the New Deal politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Lange joined her colleagues at the FSA, Walker Evans and Russell Lee, in visiting some of the worst hit rural communities and the scorched agricultural lands of the Mid-West. She travelled with her second husband, the economist Paul Taylor, documenting sharecroppers and the plight of migrant farm hands. In 1939, Lange and Taylor published their book, of her photographs and his text, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion.

Lange was particularly interested in the human cost of the Depression on rural communities. In her imagery, she coupled this with photographing the charred farmlands which caused dangerous shortages in crop yield, and aggravated an already fraught situation. Rooting the people she photographed in the infertile landscape, Lange sought to emphasise the desperation of the labourers plight. Untitled (Road), taken in South Dakota, not only highlights the parched and dusty fields but also the life of the farmhand. The panoramic view shows the expansive vastness of the landscape, while the strong vertical of the road cuts straight through the middle of the picture plane leading to the horizon line. In making the open road the focus of her image, Lange highlights the plight of the migrant labourer and their nomadic life as they travelled from town to town in search of work at the farmsteads which littered the American pastoral landscape.

Lange’s photographs, along with her colleagues’ at the FSA, provide an extensive record of one of the most critical periods in American history. They also firmly established the genre of documentary photography.

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