Daughter of Migrant Tennessee Coal Miner, Living in American River Camp, near Sacramento, California, 1936
Gelatin silver print
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
It was through Dorothea Lange's emotionally compelling photographs that the country first took note of the extensive internal agricultural migration across the United States during the Great Depression. That movement was often caused by drought, but this young woman's family was displaced for another reason---the federal government's construction of massive dams across central Tennessee in order to electrify the rural South.
With her work, Dorothea Lange (1895--1965) combined her growing concern for the plight of the American poor with years of experience as a portrait photographer. In the mid-1910s, she had apprenticed in Arnold Genthe's (1869--1942) fashionable New York City portrait studio. She later ran her own studio in San Francisco, where she catered to society's elite. Following the stock market crash in 1929, her portrait business slackened. She then began to focus on street photography, documenting labor strikes and the city's homeless population. In 1935 she met Paul Taylor (1895--1985), an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley with whom she began a long collaboration. He soon became her husband and a moral guide directing her work. Taylor, a nationally known scholar of agricultural economics and labor, advocated the social benefits of land ownership and believed that migrant labor and farm tenancy were harming the American economy. Taylor and Lange's documentation of the situation resulted in the 1939 publication An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion.
Throughout the 1930s, Lange produced documentary photographs for several government agencies. She started with an assignment to study the growing numbers of dust bowl refugees migrating to California and eventually worked with Roy Stryker (1893--1975) for the Resettlement Administration (RA)---renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. Stryker aimed to put a face on poverty in America through the RA's photodocumentation. He later claimed that Lange exhibited an amazing sensitivity and rapport with people. She speculated that a pronounced limp from childhood polio often worked to her advantage, engendering sympathy and a bond with her subjects.