The Humanity Behind the Despair

An exhibit of Dorothea Lange's works depicts Depression-era rural America

HE is wrapped in a stained and torn blanket the color of dried mud. Hunched over, he sits on the sidewalk here in front of the Museum of Modern Art, nodding from exhaustion or alcohol, greasy hair spilling around his face. Near his split shoes, a white paper cup waits for the drop of spare change.

Inside the museum to his left is ``Dorothea Lange: American Photographs,'' an exhibition of 220 black-and-white Depression-era photos. Reverse speed in a time machine, bring back an old camera and film, and it's 1936 on the sidewalk. The man would cause Dorothea Lange to stop, kneel down, click, and with a single photo, find and mark the humanity behind the despair.

Lange did this throughout the Depression era, photographing the rural poor for the United States Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration (FSA). She also photographed the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and farm and migrant workers in the South and Midwest. This is the first major retrospective of her work.

She and Walker Evans produced America's most widely seen and revered photos of the social conditions of workers and farmers. One of her photos, ``The White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933,'' of an old man standing with his back to a bread line, sold for $52,900 at a Sotheby's auction this April - an irony that might not have pleased the woman whose photos stirred public support for government funding of migrant workers.

Lange's consistently sympathetic eye, in tandem with the ability to exclude anything extraneous in composition, were characteristic of a sensibility that was journalistic as well as loving. Her photos created a visual ideology all their own. Memorable and disturbing, her saddened images define an era in which rural America was giving way to the thunder of urban industry.

In the backwash, families became homeless, suddenly forced to look for jobs far from home at the end of long highways. Lange usually traveled these roads with her second husband, Paul Schuster, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

``We used our hunches,'' she said of the experience. ``We lived and it was hard, hard living ... not too far away from the people we were working with.''

One afternoon in March of 1936 in rural California, she saw a road sign, ``Pea Pickers Camp,'' and drove on by. Nudged by the thought of missing something, Lange turned around 20 miles later. At the camp she found a thin, 32-year-old widow with seven children sitting by a car with no tires.

With one child asleep in the mother's lap, and one at each shoulder turning their heads away, Lange clicked the camera. The mother had a tentative hand to her face, and a weary, furrowed brow. She had sold the tires for money to buy food.

THE resulting photo, ``Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936'' has become one of the most poignant and best-known images in American history.

Lange talked to the people she photographed, attaching quotes to the photos when she submitted them to the FSA. The 1934 profile she did of Andrew Furuseth, the craggy, hawk-nosed secretary of the Sailor's Union of the Pacific, carries this quote from him about a labor injunction: ``They can't put me in a smaller room than I've always lived in. They can't give me plainer food than I've always eaten. They can't make me any lonelier than I've always been.''

Abandoned by her father as a child, Lange started taking photos when she was 17. As the result of a childhood disease, she had a limp all her life, but never balked at the physical demands of her career. For years she had a portrait studio in San Francisco, and joined Schuster in chronicling the plight of migrant workers as her social concerns grew. In 1939 she and Schuster published a book, ``An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion.''

Part of her genius was to see the essence of a scene in the details: a woman's legs crossed at the ankles and wearing patched stockings, shoeless in the dirt; the rough, bony hands clasped behind men's backs; or a policemen with one hand on his hip.

In the photo, ``Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona 1940,'' the dirty back of a man's hand covers his mouth, not as a gesture to hide, but more with a sense of curiosity. In a photo taken on a rainy Sunday after a funeral in Amana, Iowa, in 1941, Lange's photo caught two dark forms from the back, sitting on a wagon. Heads down, shoulders hunched, with one arm draped over an iron bar, the photo becomes a powerful abstraction as well as profoundly human.

In 1941 Lange was hired by the Office of War Information to document the relocation of Japanese-Americans. Appalled by the politics behind relocation, Lange nonetheless spent months at the camps. Perhaps she was too sympathetic. The photos were locked in a vault until well after the war was over.

Lange died in Berkeley in 1965. The exhibit represents three years of work by the museum's photography curator, Sandra Phillips, and is one of the most highly funded exhibits in the museum's history.

* The exhibit closes in San Francisco on Sept. 4. It then travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington.

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