Dorothea Lange made far more photos of parents and their children than any of the other Farm Security Administration [FSA] photographers, and her's were easily the most beautiful and most compelling. One, "Migrant Mother," is an icon of America during the Depression.
It's not surprising that Lange returned often to the theme of mother and child. These images appeal to the emotions and resonate with the Madonna figure of Christian iconography. Her job, after all, was to create photos that would build support for the Roosevelt administration's New Deal programs, especially the FSA.
But Lange also made many photos of migrant fathers, almost always contrasting the size and strength of the men with the vulnerability of their children. None became iconic, or even particularly well known, but that doesn't diminish their beauty.
Lange: Drought refugee from Polk, Missouri. Awaiting the opening of orange picking season at Porterville, California, 1936. (These photos are available online, from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection, at the Library of Congress.)
In her wonderful new biography, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Linda Gordon suggests that there were other, deeper reasons for the attention that Lange lavished on parents and children. "Nothing in Lange's personal life," she writes, "was as fraught as her own motherhood and she lived with contradictory impulses every day." The difficulty was in reconciling her responsibility to her children with her dedication to her work. Her photography, which she saw as an extension of her commitment to social justice, demanded that she spend long weeks and months away from her children. The price that she paid was a heavy burden of guilt. She was drawn to the families that she encountered on the road because she couldn't be with her's.
Lange: Young sharecropper and his first child. Hillside Farm. Person County, North Carolina, 1939. (Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
Lange provided detailed "General Captions" for many of her photos. This portrait of the sharecropper and his child is part of a series the she did on this family and the land that they worked. The General Caption for the series reads, in part:
"...young Negro couple and baby. ...The man was shy of having his photograph made but finally held the baby in front of the house for one picture. They have just moved here this year--'They treat us better here than where we did live....' The woman had been through seventh grade, the husband not much education. She would not let us take pictures of the interior--'Ain't cleaned up in ever so long....' ...[the family] had to get water from 'the spring' so far away that the man was gone about 20 minutes to get a bucket of water." (From Anne Whiston Spirn's fascinating book about Lange's field work, Daring to Look.)
Lange: The Fairbanks family has moved to three different places on the [federal government's irrigation] project in one year. Willow Creek area, Malheur County, Oregon, 1939.
There's no doubt that Lange understood how to use archetypes in her photography. The cowboy, a symbol of rugged independence, has, in this photo, willingly given up some of that freedom. He's accepted his duty to provide for his child and his wife. Or die trying.
Lange: George Cleaver, new farmer, has five boys. The three older boys, ages twelve, sixteen, and eighteen, are needed at home to develop the farm and do not go to school. Malheur County, Oregon, 1939.
It's worth noting that even in the midst of the Depression, in the midst of poverty and hunger, Lange's subjects are never mere victims. This photo of George Cleaver and his son is as much about strength and humor as it is about the challenges the family faces.
Yes, the lives of the people in Lange's have been disrupted by economic forces that are far more powerful than they are. But she wants us to remember that these folks are just complex and just as full of life as we are. Her people are people that we'd want to know.