Dorothea Lange’s Angel of History

tags: photography, American History, Dorothea Lange

Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books, including A Paradise Built in Hell Men, Explain Things to Me, and, most recently, Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir. She lives in San Francisco.


In 1937, Lange photographed six displaced tenant farmers in Goodlet, Texas, strong men with grim faces standing on bare earth in front of an unpainted wooden structure. On March 27, 1942, in San Jose, California, she photographed a Japanese American farmer sitting on what appears to be a porch: “A young celery grower … who has just completed arrangements for leasing his farm during evacuation.” His sisters flank him in the background, and the white man who’s presumably worked out the arrangements with him looms. The vanishing point architecture boxes him in, and one of his sisters in the background leans against a mattress tipped up against the wall. They’re both uprooted and trapped, the composition says.

Sometimes her uprooted people landed well—the black shipyard workers of Richmond, California, were often escaping sharecropping in the south, but sometimes they had not landed, and perhaps some of us from that era of uprooting never will. In our current era of uprooting, thanks to economic policies that have created mass homelessness again in California and crushing debt across the nation, Lange’s images seem immediate, urgent, thorny again, questions that demand answers.

There’s no such ominousness inside the photograph here of the woman in the Berryessa Valley, but starting with Lange’s White Angel Breadline photograph of 1933, displacement was one of her perennial themes. The Berryessa people weren’t displaced by ecological failure, poverty, or racism, though: they were ousted by development. Further along in “Death of a Valley” comes an image showing two old family photographs lying on a dusty wooden floor in, the caption tells us, an otherwise empty, abandoned house. Then come the exhumed graves and the giant oak tree toppled, the fires, the famous frightened horse—a white horse moving across dusty, distressed ground: “Just raw and mutilated earth remained.”


Read entire article at The Paris Review

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