In August 1939, photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) visits Washington to document the lives of migrant farmworkers. Known as a humanitarian, artist, and one of the preeminent and pioneering documentary photographers of the twentieth century, Lange is a nationally recognized figure in American photography, along with the likes of Ansel Adams and Walker Evans. Her black-and-white photos of small towns, farms, and rural residents are accompanied by terse and usually unemotional captions, offering social commentary on the state while documenting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
A Challenging Childhood
Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey in 1895. She probably empathized with struggling families, as her own childhood was not a comfortable one. At age 7, she contracted polio, which left her with a permanent limp. "I think [polio] was the most important thing that happened to me," she would say. "It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me" (Swaim). When she was 12, her father abandoned the family and they moved in with a grandmother and great aunt.
Lange fared poorly in school. Although her mother urged her to consider a career as a teacher (a common job for women in the early 1900s), Lange felt a strong connection to photography. She eventually made her way to San Francisco and obtained work in a photo-developing center. After joining a camera club, she opened a portrait studio and became an avid member of the local art scene. Struggling with a failing marriage to artist Maynard Dixon, and coping with the onset of the Great Depression, Lange felt compelled to turn from portrait work to using photography to expose social problems. This led to her eventual employment with the California Emergency Relief Administration under field director and economist Paul Taylor, who would become Lange’s second husband.
Lange went on to work with the federal Resettlement Administration, whose goal was to relocate struggling families to more productive areas. This program was later replaced with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), with a shift to helping farmers stay on their own land or assisting tenant farmers in purchasing land for themselves. Embroiled in controversy over the program’s perceived communist tendencies, the government had "a continued demand for photographs to illustrate the full scope of the FSA's programs and their soundness and success" (Spirn, 187).
As a field investigator and photographer for FSA, Lange traveled the country, tasked with recording the successes of the New Deal agricultural programs, as well as the devastating but often hidden effects of the Depression. "Migrant Mother," undoubtedly Lange’s most famous photograph, featured an unidentified woman: downtrodden, worried, hopeless, with her children at her side. The mother personified the plight of so many Americans beset by the rampant poverty and homelessness of the Depression.
Lange’s reputation as a serious photographer was heightened by the publication of "Migrant Mother." But more important, her photos brought about positive actions. After the publication of "Migrant Mother" (originally titled "Pea Picker Family, California"), for example, the State of California delivered food to more than 2,000 needy fruit pickers. In this case and others, Lange’s photographs were indeed worth a thousand words. By drawing attention to societal problems, Lange became part of the solution to the poverty and hardships endured by migrant workers across the country.
Lange Comes to Washington
Lange spent much of her time in the American Southwest. But in 1939 she toured the Pacific Northwest and spent one remarkable month, August, in Washington. In Eastern Washington, she photographed Wapato, Toppenish, Quincy, Buena, and Yakima. On the west side, she visited Tenino, Michigan Hill (in southwest Thurston County), Malone, Vader, and Longview.
Lange typically wrote one- or two-line captions for her photos. She also wrote longer "general captions" for photo sets dealing with a particular subject or place. Sprinkled with often poignant quotes from the people she photographed, Lange’s own words tended to be businesslike and rather unemotional. However, the starkness of her captions matched the austere impact of her black-and-white photos. In retrospect, color photography and flowery language would have softened the emotional power of the faces and conditions she depicted.
Lange’s visit to the east side of the state concentrated on the dry agricultural areas around Yakima, where a huge number of migrant workers entered the area during harvest time. Other workers and their families elected to make a home in the region, with help from FSA. Lange’s general captions described the conditions there on both a broad and a personal level:
"General Caption No. 33
The United States Reclamation Service has brought water to the valleys of the Yakima, which now has about half a million acres under irrigation. The value of crops produced in Yakima county alone was nearly 30 million dollars in 1929, close to the highest among the counties of the country. Fruits, vegetables, and hops are among the principal crops, both in total value and in amount of seasonal labor required. The number of hired workers required in the fields fluctuates between 500 in December and January to 33,000 in late September. As a reflection of this the population of the town of Yakima, numbering 22,000 in 1930, is said to double each year in the month of September. Yakima has been the scene of bitter labor strife ... It is a mecca for refugees from drought in the Great Plains and for migratory laborers seeking brief seasonal employment. The refugees face heavy unemployment in the valley. In this sense, as well as the sense intended, there is much point to the statement of the Yakima Valley Chamber of Commerce: 'Irrigation has transformed the land our forefathers viewed as a barren sagebrush waste into a substantial producing area ... While the valleys of the Yakima afford no haven for the idle, they have much to offer to those who have some capital and a willingness to work and build'" (Spirn, 156, 160).
"General Caption No. 29
August 10, 1939
Yakima Valley, near Toppenish, Washington
Another migrant family
A sick and feverish child lies outside on the ground near the trailer in which they have recently (July 1939) come to Washington. There are four little girls. The oldest is 11, the one who is sick is 9. Their mother deserted the family in Missouri two years ago. Their father 'used to be a miner back there, but started to get trouble with his lungs so we came here.' Family living in a vacant lot on the edge of town. Father was working on this day at day labor, wages $1 per day" (Spirn, 167).
“General Caption No. 26
The ten years since 1929 have witnessed an unparalleled growth of shacktowns in the rural communities of the Pacific coast. These rural slums are built usually on the fringes of towns. Houses of all materials, from cardboard and old sheets of corrugated iron to second-hand lumber of odd sizes, have been erected by the labor of the occupants. Some are on river bottoms and dumps. Others, increasingly, are on small tracts opened by private real estate operators, where from $5 down and $1 a week a house site may be had. The people who crowd these towns are refugees from the larger towns or from the areas of drought, who seek cheap rent, a chance for stability, and the casual employment afforded in towns and in agriculture. It is important to note that many of these depend on W.P.A. [Works Progress Administration]. Turn-over is high. On the lots beside the shacks stand often the trailers in which the refugees have come and the tents which gave them temporary shelter. The richer the district in agriculture production, the more it has drawn the distressed who build its shacktowns. From the Salt River valley of Arizona to the Yakima valley of Washington, the richest valleys are dotted with the biggest slums" (Spirn, 174).
"General Caption No. 28
August 10, 1939
Yakima Valley, near Wapato, Washington
Rural rehabilitation, F.S.A.
Name of client, Chris Adolf. Amount of loan, $2,138. 80 acres of Indian land, on three year lease. Came to the Yakima Valley in 1937 from Bethune, Kit Carson County, Colorado. He owned his own farm there and he had lived there all his life. Drought forced him out with his wife and 8 children. His wife had been a school teacher. 'I'd like to go back. I was born and raised there and it was hard to leave, but my wife and my children don’t want to go back.' 'I've broke thousands of acres of sod. The dust got so bad that we had to sleep with wet cloths over our faces.' All 8 children live at home, all work on the farm, and the family are making a good start" (Spirn, 196).
"General Caption No. 35
Date: August 14, 1939
Place: Columbia Basin, near Quincy, Grant County, Washington
Deserted homesteads tell the story of the past in the dry lands of the Columbia Basin. The future of these lands depends not only upon plenty of water for irrigation from the Grand Coulee Dam ... Chris Ament [Amend] says -- 'I'm 67 years old and won’t be able to get the benefits of the water, but I hope to be able to see it. If the government handles it right it will be a good thing, but my boy has a good piece of land down in the Yakima valley, he’s a good farmer, plenty of water, good soil, and he can’t make a go of it" (Spirn, 241).
While federal programs in Eastern Washington focused on irrigated crops, Lange found that the greener side of the state hosted farmers and families committed to clearing land of evergreen trees and brush and turning the land to small crops. Cleared acreage was often referred to as a stump farm. A stump farm was generally considered to be a poor man’s farm, or at least the very modest beginning of a more sophisticated one. Forested land was cleared of trees (and no doubt the logs were sold for lumber, when possible) but the stumps were left standing. The ground between the stumps was then turned to agriculture. As the farmers had time and energy, they grubbed out the stumps and made stump piles, which were then burned; this left larger fields free of obstacles. But it was a lengthy and tiresome process.
By the time Lange arrived in 1939, many parts of Michigan Hill in Thurston County had been cleared and turned to pasture or crops such as strawberries. Uncultivated land between stumps and along roads quickly returned to a brushy state, where native plants such as blackberries, grasses, bracken ferns, snowberries, and goldenrod flourished. In her photos of life on Michigan Hill, Lange focused on two families: the Arnolds and the Kyttas.
"General Caption No. 36
Date: August 14, 1939
Place: Thurston County, western Washington
Thurston County is a cut over area. There are 2,900 farms in the county. 900 are adequate, 500 are farming less [than] 5 acres. Many refugees from drought in other parts of the U.S. are settling, or attempting to settle, in this part of Washington. Some became Rural Rehabilitation borrowers of the F.S.A. 14 of these borrowers are now operating under the new 'Non-Commercial Experiment,' devised where it seemed impossible for the borrowers to continue under land debts and standard rural rehabilitation loans; to scale down the basis of their loan, to enable them to continue. These Non-Commercial Experiment borrowers are located in a section called Michigan Hill. The Bulldozer, under contract, has been employed to help them clear needed acreage. Strawberries for the canning industry are being developed for a cash crop, after sufficient land is cleared.
"Arnold family, example of Non-Commercial Experiment borrowers. This family came to Thurston county from Las Cruces, New Mexico, where they sold out their place for $2,000. Had written to the railroad company for information regarding western Washington and arrived by train in May 1935. Three days later they had made a payment of $1,200 on 80 acres of uncleared land. This is the farm which they are now developing. At first they lived in a tent. They grubbed out 80 stumps from what is now the hay field in front of their present house which they built themselves, since. All the children work. They are planning and depending on considerable acreage in strawberries for cash income. This year, just before harvest, there was a frost. The Arnold family have had some clearing done by Bulldozer, but only for uprooting and moving the stumps. All clearing of the debris, the leveling and filling, they and their children are doing themselves. This family have done a tremendous amount of hard physical labor in order to gain what they call independence.
"Mrs. Arnold: She was unwilling to have any photographs made in or even around the house, which was messy and unkempt. She explained that she was unable to attend to household affairs properly because she put in all her time 'on the place.' She plans however a 'nice house, with a porch across the front.' Mr. Arnold was not at home on this day. He was working on another farm nearby on an exchange of labor. The two oldest Arnold children earned money picking strawberries during the past season for neighbors. The boy earned $8, the girl $7" (Spirn, 199-200).
"The Kytta family, Non-Commercial Experiment borrowers (F.S.A.). The family are building a well on the place. When they received their loan they were on W.P.A. They have cleared 8 acres. The father can not be shown in the photograph for he was down 45 feet digging in the well, the boys worked with him, the mother and daughter watched. They came from Michigan three years ago, have been on this place for 2 years. The father had been a copper miner. Mother says, ‘I hope it’s worth it, but we don’t know for sure, but we do know you have to work hard anywhere, and we’re willing" (Spirn, 200).
Families Documented by Lange
The individuals and families photographed by Lange met with both successes and failures in the post-New Deal years.
Decades after Lange took her most well-known photo in California, the Migrant Mother herself was tracked down by a reporter. Her name was Florence Owens Thompson; she was a Cherokee Indian who had married young and migrated to California with her family. Even after the Depression ended, her life was not easy. "I tended bar, I worked in the field, so I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids," she said (Phelan). Thompson died in 1983.
In 1942, the Chris Adolph family was still living near Toppenish. Adolph registered for the draft, and listed his occupation as farmer. He died in 1962. As adults, seven of his eight children remained in Eastern Washington; one moved to the Vancouver area.
Christian Amend Sr. did indeed live to see the irrigation benefits of Grand Coulee Dam. He died in Grant County in 1949.
The Arnolds photographed by Lange may have been the Irving and Eleanor Arnold family. Their children were Irving Jr. (age 11 in 1939), Hazel (9), Charles (7), and Norma (6). The Arnolds had moved to Washington from New Mexico, and the parents must have gone back there at some point, as they are both buried in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The Kyttas in Lange’s photos were probably the William and Amanda Kytta family. Their children were Hazel (age 20 in 1939), William (18), and Glen (17). The Kyttas apparently never strayed far from the Michigan Hill area, as both William and Amanda are buried in the Grand Mound Cemetery nearby.
Lange’s Later Career
After traveling through Washington in August 1939, Lange spent the next few months taking more photos in Oregon and writing captions for her Pacific Northwest work. On November 30, 1939, her job with the Farm Security Administration ended. She soon took a per-diem position at the Bureau of Agricultural Economics.
In 1941, Lange was officially recognized for her work. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, a 12-month monetary grant, which allowed her to explore her field free of the constraints of earning money. Lange was the first woman to be so honored, "for the making of documentary photographs of the American social scene, particularly in rural communities" (Guggenheim).
During World War II, Lange worked for the Office of War Information, photographing the internment of Japanese Americans. Lange considered the internment policies to be unjust, and some of her work was suppressed by the federal government. She also documented the 1945 San Francisco conference that established the United Nations. Later, she traveled around the world, continuing her documentation of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Lange died from esophageal cancer in 1965; her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered. Her art lives on.