Oregon, August 1939. “Unemployed lumber worker goes with his wife to the bean harvest. Note Social Security number tattooed on arm.” Shorpy determined through a public records search that 535-07-5248 belonged to one Thomas Cave, born July 1912, died in 1980 in Portland, OR. Which would make him 27 years old when this picture was taken. This pic has long been a favorite of mine. First, there’s the handsome rake with his devilish “cat that just ate the canary” grin, and his beautiful bride lounging in the background with her equally impressive model-worthy looks. Second, there is more than a little irony for me in this image, as we so often equate physical beauty with material success these days– but here’s a stunning couple eking out a living through sweat and toil one meal at a time. I’m tellin’ you, as sure as I live and breathe– poverty is the ultimate equalizer, folks.

California, March 1937. “Toward Los Angeles.” Another ironic pic– “Next Time Try The Train– Relax.”  Well– give me the fare and I will, buddy.  We ain’t walkin’ for our health…

The American photographer Dorothea Lange was a product of Hoboken, NJ (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965).  She started out her career in photography taking commercial portraits in 1920s San Francisco. Dorothea then worked in the Southwest with her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon. In the early 1930s, Lange intuitively took her camera to the streets, recording the breadlines and waterfront strikes of Depression era San Francisco.  That marked the beginning of a radical shift in her philosophy & photography, that would mark her life and give us some of the most iconic American images known.

In 1935, Lange began her landmark work for the Farm Security Administration, a Federal Agency. Collaborating with her second husband, labor economist Paul S. Taylor, she documented the troubled exodus of farm families migrating West in search of work. Lange’s documentary style achieved its fullest expression in these years, with photographs such as Migrant Mother becoming instantly recognized symbols of the Depression.

California, February 1936.  “Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children.” This iconic image has become known as “Migrant Mother” is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California. Lange was concluding a month’s trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration.

In 1960, Dorothea Lange gave this account of the Migrant Mother experience–

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

November 1936. “Drought refugee from Polk, Missouri. Awaiting the opening of orange picking season at Porterville, California.”

October 1939. “Mrs. Sam Cates, wife of Cow Hollow farmer. Malheur County, Oregon.”

February 1939. Calipatria, Imperial Valley. Car on siding across tracks from pea packing plant. Twenty-five year old itinerant, originally from Oregon. “On the road eight years, all over the country, every state in the union, back and forth, pick up a job here and there, traveling all the time.”

June 1938. Outskirts of El Paso, Texas. “Young Negro wife cooking breakfast. ‘Do you suppose I’d be out on the highway cooking my steak if I had it good at home?’ Occupations: hotel maid, cook, laundress.”

December 1935. “Resettled farm child. From Taos Junction to Bosque Farms project, New Mexico.”

October 1939. “Tavern on main street of potato town during harvest season. Merrill, Oregon.”

Fourth of July 1939 near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rural filling stations become community centers and general loafing grounds. Cedargrove Team members about to play in a baseball game.

November 1938. “Farm woman beside her barn door. Tulare County, California. No more horseshoes!”

July 1939. Gordonton, N.C. “Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway.”

November 1936. “Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner. Living in American River camp near Sacramento, California.”

July 1937. “Man who worked in Fullerton, Louisiana, lumber mill for 15 years. He is now left stranded in the cut-over area.”

August 1936. Drought refugees from Abilene, Texas, following the crops of California as migratory workers. Said the father: “The finest people in this world live in Texas but I just can’t seem to accomplish nothin’ there. Two year drought, then a crop, then two years drought and so on. I got two brothers still trying to make it back there.”

May 1939. “Between Tulare and Fresno on U.S. 99. Farmer from Independence, Kansas, on the road at cotton chopping time. He and his family have been in California for six months.”

Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California atop car with her giant camera. February 1936.



  1. Ahhhh… a guy after my own heart. Love Dorothea Lange. Have always loved the story told in her work as well as the repetition of shapes in her images. (note the young girl’s head and the circle hole in the fireplace and how it really works)

    Another favorite of mine… Henri Cartier Bresson . Funny how things happen. My husband and I were in Europe, Florence actually, and were walking down an alley. Accidentally stumbled on a small Henri Cartier Bresson show in some off-the-beaten-path little local gallery. Simply serendipitous. He is a guy that had to have the patience of a saint to sit and wait for his images to be created.

    Phototgraphy = writing with light ( just ONE of my passions)

    Cheers and great seeing you in NYC, JP!


    • Agreed. You have to admit though– “unemployed lumber worker” in the top pic looks very George Clooney ala the Coen Brothers– “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Coincidence?

  2. “If one person comments on the fashion or style of the people in this post. boy oh boy oh boy oh boy”

    Amen. I love Shorpy, but most of the readers are rather shallow in their comments.

    I also love Henri Cartier Bresson, but his photography has nothing in common with Ms Lange’s other than they both made pictures in the street. Her pictures are an outgrowth of her social conscience. They have a purpose. They have emotional content and and are meant to evoke empathy. She’s turning over rocks and asking you to look at what she found. Henri Cartier Bresson’s pictures are slices of life that have more in common with surrealism than anything else. They are detached, precise compositions with all the elements in just the right place. He’s not trying to get you to do anything.

    That’s how I see it anyway.

  3. A more technical term for the camera is a “large format camera”. Cool entry – this is the greatest blog ever.

  4. Dorthea Lange did a phenomenal job of capturing the feel of the great depression (and I’d love to have her car from that last picture). However, the thing that strikes me the most is not the photographic skill, but the evident character of the people she chose to photograph. These are people who have worked hard and ended up on the short end through no fault of their own, but they are still working, moving and trying. The current depression is different in that many of those out of work are just waiting for something to happen. It is partly the effect of a social safety net and partly the fact that all too many have no background of doing whatever it takes and partly because the hope of the horizon died somewhere along the line. For generations people have always had the hope of a new start in a new place, but the steadily shrinking world has made it so that there no longer seem to be any fresh starts, no longer any place where the sun is always shining, no longer the vision of a better life in California or wherever. With the diminution of the dream all that is left is apathy. Whatever you see in the faces of the Great Depression, it is almost never apathy.

    The people in these pictures are my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. They bowed their necks to the burden and carried on. In many ways it makes me feel small.

  5. Perhaps not apathy in their faces but clearly depression, anger, shame, hopelessness. Human emotions that never go out of style unfortunately.

    As a photographer, Dorthea Lange was a major influence in my early years when I was still in art school trying to discover my voice (I’m almost there as I just turned 60) and I agree that her images go way beyond what we’ve come to know as “street photography”. She was brave and fearless.

    Her images are so present. Partly due to the camera she used. Those large negatives showed every flaw…every nuance in perfect clarity. And the prints are nothing short of amazing. As I pat myself on the back and marvel at some of my recent digital prints, I look at these images from the 30’s and I’m humbled. No one should ever say that imagemaking has nothing to do with technology and technique….ever.

    What a wonderful sequence you’ve put together and the final image is just perfect!

    Thanks for sharing your love of photography.

  6. Very nicely done; I love the comments/quotes associated with the pics. I was thinking it would be interesting to see the contact sheets to look at the shots surrounding each image chosen, then realized there were no contact sheets in that she was utilizing that view camera – one shot per negative. Even more impressive!

  7. holy cow! the 4th pic from top, Drought refugee from Polk, has the coolest chambray shirt on! and man, what i wouldn’t give for a pair of overalls like those… i wonder if they are roundhouse? i got a hat like that though. these pics are just CHOCK full of great clothes ideas!


  9. Just saw a collection of Lange’s work in a wayside cafe in Bay City
    on the Oregon Coast. Such evocative work of a time gone by.
    Makes you think, “What would happen if our economy collapsed
    and we had to go work in the fields again?” Would there be fields?

    • Back then 60 % of the country was rural. Now 2 % of the population farms (you can replace a lot of people with a combine harvester). So that means that today there are 5 times more people out of work than there are people producing all our food. So no, we will not return to the fields. There are no fields to return to. That America is gone for good. There aren’t any factories to return to either. That America is gone too.
      When the economy finally goes, your best bet is to join the armed forces. You’ll have a job putting down the food riots 🙂
      At least the guns are still made here. Not all of Americas heritage has been outsourced. Yet. :)))

  10. The Fullerton man is Frank Duffell, he was my grandfather, I am hoping the artist has other pictures from Fullerton, La.


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