The eight-year period referred to as the Dust Bowl Years began with a drought in the East in 1930, which moved towards the West in 1931.
What has become known as the Dust Bowl is the area encompassing parts of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, totaling almost 100 million acres of land. Dry spells occur about every 25 years in that area naturally, but this dry spell was coupled with misuse of land, by overgrazing and farming techniques fit for the East that the homesteaders brought with them. By plowing this land, farmers new to the area ripped out the fine grasses that hold the fine soil in place.
People began to abandon their land, as the dust storms were just not stopping, the drought was just not ending. Some were forced to leave as the bank foreclosed on their land. In the end, one-fourth of that area's population left their homes and headed to California. The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the area; of those, 200,000 moved to California, which was not prepared to take in so many migrants (nor did it care to). The migrant worker had no home, and moved around following the hope of work, the hope of a crop to pick.
The day that Dorothea Lange photographed what would become her most famous photograph,
, has been retold by Lange in numerous sources.
She was on her way home from a trip documenting the living and working conditions of the migrants to California. She followed their schedules, getting up at sunup and working until sundown, which made for long, sixteen-hour days. She was tired, and she was ready to see her family. With about seven hours of driving left ahead of her, she passed a homemade sign that said
Pea Pickers' Camp.
She knew that a late frost had ruined the pea crop, and was concerned about the people who might be at the camp. It nagged at her to turn around, to go back and visit the camp, another opportunity to document. About 15 minutes (20 miles) later, Lange
turn around and went back to the camp. Right away she saw the woman who would be the subject of
. Some sources say she took 5 shots, but she really took 6; in any case each shot focuses in on the woman a little more, and the final shot is the one that would become the "timeless and universal symbol of suffering in the face of adversity (Curtis p. 47)."
Early the morning after she got home, instead of spending time with her family Lange rushed to develop the photographs and submit them to the FSA
San Francisco News
. She thought that these photographs could help bring attention to the plight of these American migrant farmers. She was right; the story was printed in newspapers around the country, and the federal government immediately sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camps. The U.S. public couldn't believe that the people who provided them with food were starving.
The FSA photographers used "contemporary social science techniques in captioning their images. Subjects photographed, like citizens interviewed, remained anonymous. Stripped of their identities, they become the common men and women whose plight the Roosevelt administration was working to improve (Curtis p. 49)." Despite this custom of general captioning, Lange usually wrote lots of biographical information down about her subjects, taking meticulous notes for her file. This time however, she wrote very little, not even a name, and it would later be discovered that much of what she
written was inaccurate. The woman's name is Florence Owens Thompson, and she has a far different memory of the events at hand.
The Dust Bowl refugees were of European descent, and were migrating to California because they were displaced from their farmland by drought. Florence Owens Thompson, though from Oklahoma, was a full-blooded Native American, and her family had been displaced from tribal lands by the U.S. government. (By 1930, Native Americans had lost more than 80% of their lands this way).
The day Lange photographed Thompson, she and her family were driving towards Watsonville, hoping to pick lettuce in the Pajaro Valley.
The timing chain on their car broke just outside Nipomo, and so they pulled into the pea -pickers camp to fix it. While fixing the chain, the radiator was punctured; Thompson's two boys (and likely her male companion) brought the radiator into town to be fixed. While they were gone, Lange arrived with her camera.
Lange had said that the family members had gone into town to sell tires, which was untrue. The only tires they had were on their car. Troy Owens, Thompson's son, has said: "I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have (Dunn)."
Dunn relates the following conversation between two of Thompson's children:
"In the catalog accompanying a recent Lange exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, exhibit curator Sandra Phillips argued that Florence Thompson's 'life [was] most likely saved by Lange's photo.' Phillips' assertion brought out groans of agony from Thompson's children. 'We were already long gone from Nipomo by the time any food was sent there,' said [son Troy] Owens. 'That photo may well have saved some peoples' lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn't save ours.' 'Our life was hard long after that photograph was taken,' added [sister Katherine] McIntosh emphatically. 'That photo never gave mother or us kids any relief.'
Although the government sent food immediately to Nipomo, the family was already well on their way to Watsonville. The photograph would always be a sore point for the family, as they said that Lange promised not to publish the photographs. (Some sources believe this, others insist it must have been a misunderstanding). They were also bitter because they thought Lange made money off of them, and they thought they should have received something. (Because Lange took the photograph for the FSA, she made no money from it directly, although it certainly did bolster her career). The children did not like to think that their mother could be distilled down to that one image. Daughter Katherine says: "She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That's not how I like to remember her." She also states that those times, though the toughest, were also the most fun.
In 1983, Florence Owens Thompson was sick with cancer. Neither she nor her family could afford all the surgery, so her children issued a plea, run in the
San Jose Mercury News
, for financial aid. More than $35,000 came, along with many letters explaining how much Thompson's picture meant to people, and how she symbolized for them strength and pride in getting through the tough times with dignity. Though Thompson soon died, the experience helped her children come to terms with a photograph that had haunted them and their family for almost 50 years.
The choices Lange made in terms of shooting the scene are very telling in light of our discussion about documentary photography. Most strikingly, the woman's teenaged daughter is purposefully excluded from the photograph. She appears in the first two photographs of the series, but Lange thought that including her would cause the viewer to speculate about how old the mother was when she began having children (Curtis p. 55). At the time, the ideal family contained no more than three children; this woman's family of seven could have detracted from the matter at hand, and maybe caused people to feel less sympathetic towards her (Curtis p. 52).
In the third shot, all you see is the mother nursing her youngest child.
is often referred to as
, and there are religious undertones and elements of symbolism present in the photograph that could be incorporated into discussion (Curtis p. 55). Lange thought that her subject looked too anxious and uncomfortable with the camera, as Lange seemed to have triggered in her what she called "that self-protective thing" (Curtis p. 57). So, despite being uncomfortable with how unpredictable children were to photograph, to calm the mother she added one of the children back into the frame for the fourth shot. She had the child rest her chin on her mother's shoulder, which, though somewhat unnatural, served the purpose of anchoring the child still. She was also asked to remove her hat, which would have obscured her facial features. This resulted in a good photograph, but Lange "thought she could do better (Curtis p. 58). The fifth shot was the same, but from a different angle, which illuminates an empty pie tin, heavily symbolic of the hunger the family was facing. It also highlighted a warm and loving relationship between mother and child, as the child is leaning lovingly on the mother's shoulder, which is comforting to the child. For the sixth and final shot, Lange brought another child in, but she had both children face away from the camera, so that her shot would not be jeopardized by their unpredictability, and they would serve as a loving frame for the mother. Lange asked the mother to bring her right hand up to her face, and that resulted in exactly what Lange wanted and knew was there (Curtis p. 65). It softened her anxiety about the camera into a mother's concern for the welfare of her family. The mother was worried about letting her sleeping child slip, so in the original sixth shot you could see her thumb grasped around the pole for support. In her excitement Lange did not see it. She eventually altered the original photonegative because she "did not want a small detail to mar the accomplishment (of overcoming her subject's defensiveness) (Curtis p. 67)."
Classroom Implementation Opportunities
Dorothea Lange: Photographer of the People
has many Lange photographs in its Virtual Exhibit, some with additional comments from Lange or other appropriate sources. View 4 of the section entitled "Politics of the New Deal" shows two photographs of ex-tenant farmers who can't qualify for unemployment relief funds because they are transients by necessity, and the key requirement for such aid is residence (see the comments listed for each photograph) [http://www.dorothea-lange.org/Newdeal-gallary/view_Fourn.htm]. Students can explore the website and gather information about the migrant workers (or any of the other subjects photographed). Vocabulary can be identified, defined, and discussed.
The teacher can read aloud pages 1-5 of Elizabeth Partridge's foreword for her book
Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange
, and then students can free-write about what they heard. Then they can visit the Ganzel website and listen to the audio excerpt of his interview with Florence Owens Thompson, comparing and contrasting the two stories and developing opinions. The Dunn article could also be used for this.