A man on horseback holds a child, his face obscured by shadows. In the background, we see a woman standing beside a ramshackle tent, staring off into the distance.
A man on horseback holds a child, his face obscured by shadows. In the background, we see a woman standing beside a ramshackle tent, staring off into the distance. All around them, a landscape of open plains and scrub brush stretches out, seemingly infinite. This is a snapshot of the Fairbanks family, taken in Malheur County, Ore., during the 1930s. The woman behind the camera was Dorothea Lange, a photographer whose iconic images have come to define our understanding of the Great Depression. Throughout October and November, the Littman Gallery will be hosting Dorothea Lange in Oregon: 1939 Farm Security Administration Photos, an exhibition commemorating Lange’s work in the region that is rarely displayed.
Born in 1895 in Hoboken, N.J., Lange developed a passion for photography at an early age. After a series of classes and internships, she eventually opened her own photo studio in San Francisco. It was here, amid the onset of the Depression, where Lange looked to the streets and used her camera to capture the widespread dejection of a working class without work.
Photographs such as “White Angel Bread Line,” which depicted a group of unemployed men waiting for food, illustrated Lange’s aptitude for distilling the human condition with striking and poignant intensity. This skill did not go unnoticed and, in 1935, she was commissioned as a field photographer for the Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration, or FSA). This was a program enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the aim of improving conditions for farmers and migrant workers. Lange’s task was to document firsthand the ameliorative effects of the FSA’s efforts. In 1939, her work with the FSA brought her to Oregon, where she produced the images that comprise the Littman Gallery display.
This will be the first time that the photographs have been displayed in a gallery setting, as they were previously only available through the Library of Congress. According to Linda Gordon, author and professor of history at New York University, the relative invisibility of Lange’s Oregon photography was what prompted her to get involved with the Lange project.
Gordon recently completed a biography of Lange’s life and will be providing an introductory speech for the exhibition. She will also be giving a presentation on Lange’s 1940s-era photographs documenting the internment of Japanese-Americans on Friday, Oct. 9 at Reed College.
“Lange was really the first person who showed that it was possible to create documentary photography that was simultaneously great art,” said Gordon. “The political impact was greater because of the quality of her photos.” Gordon attests that Lange’s work helped bolster support for Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Yet, in spite of their great significance, the photos that Lange took in Oregon—a total of over 500 images—have remained in relative obscurity for some time. Organizations such as the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission and PSU Friends of History are now helping to bring a number of these important cultural documents back into the light.
It hasn’t been easy. For the last eight years, Michael Munk, historian and member of the OCHC, has been trying to foster interest in a showing of Lange’s pictures of the Pacific Northwest. Munk claims he had no idea that Lange had photographed in the area until he stumbled upon a shot she had taken along an Oregon highway. Inspired by this discovery, he became dedicated to bringing wider attention to this little known treasure trove of local history.
For a while, Munk and the OCHC were unable to drum up enough support to launch an exhibition. Munk says he was “perplexed by the unenthusiastic response,” but persevered in his efforts.
With financial backing and the assistance of photographer Rick Regan, who has made high-quality prints of the photos from the Library of Congress’ digital archives, the project has finally come to fruition. David Milholland, president of OCHC, is thrilled to be unveiling the pictures. He believes they provide a valuable window into a past that may seem distant to the postwar generation, but has a great deal of relevance to contemporary society. On Oct. 10, a series of speakers will present dramatic renditions of Lange’s notes, accompanied by a slide show presentation of the related pictures. The event will even include popular music from the Depression era to create authentic ambience.
David Horowitz, a history professor at Portland State who helped organize the workshop, will be taking part in the dramatic readings. Horowitz discovered Lange through his studies of populism and forms of expressive culture in the 1930s, and clearly has a great deal of respect for the message behind Lange’s photography.
“Her work brings out the strength of ordinary people,” Horowitz says. He also emphasizes the connection between Lange’s work and our current economic situation.
The exhibition could hardly be timelier. The anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression falls on Oct. 28 and the reality of our present recession weighs heavily on the minds of most Americans. Lange’s powerful portraits serve as a reminder that hard times can bring out some of humanity’s most admirable attributes: fortitude, tenacity and a deep sense of kinship.