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Sophia Kalish ’25

Old time black and white store signs.

Look At It

Dorothea Lange, an acclaimed artist, rose to fame by bringing a dark time in the U.S. to light, with photographs such as Migrant Mother and Women of the High Plains. We’re all familiar with The Great Depression that hit America in the 1930s, a financial crisis that left so many in the country unemployed and unable to provide for their families. In order to get through that troubling period, Lange captures the reality that citizens needed to find strength from within to endure. Ultimately, her work is a call to action that sends a message of hope, unity and awareness to all of its viewers.

Migrant Mother and Women of the High Plains both convey intimacy. In both images, there’s a main character, and a protagonist, centered. Based on what they’re wearing, what they’re doing, and their facial expressions, a story is instantly created. The image hints at context as to what their story could be and the longer you look, the more you gather.

Migrant Mother shows two children holding on to a woman who is understood to be their mother. All three of them are captured in disarray with their messy hair, ragged clothes and dirt-caked skin. The mother appears weak as she drapes her bony legs in a thin blanket and clutches the fence nearby. The children have their backs to the camera and bury themselves in their mother’s arms which, despite being frail, appears to be a warm and safe place for them. She lets them cling to her and shows them what it’s like to stay strong in the face of adversity.

In Woman of the High Plains, we see a shot of a woman with her hand over her forehead and the wind blowing through her hair. She’s standing in a cornfield and wears a ripped plain cloth dress. She’s still—as if this moment is bringing her peace. The wind blows through her hair. As she takes this break, this moment to herself she might possibly forget about her current state of affairs. For this moment she lets the sun hit her wrinkled skin and her eyes gently close. It’s a break from all of the madness and uncertainty.

Because these pictures only show a glimpse of a moment in time, I find myself wondering what happens next. I wonder what landed this mother and her children out of their house in Migrant Mother. I can’t tell if they are safe from the weather or if they have been able to eat anything. I’m curious as to what the woman in Woman of the High Plains is doing and if she might’ve been taking a break from labor in that field. Above all, I wonder why it was these individuals that caught Lange’s attention and if they have any more similarities.

After being able to develop some research on Lange’s own life, I was able to understand more of her artistic perspective. She landed in Imperial County, California in the late 1930s and found there was much to photograph. She captured those searching for work on the carrot fields, their desperation and determination spoke volumes to her as it did to the rest of the nation. Once Lange’s spark to a fiery fame was ignited, she quickly caught the attention of the government and the Resettlement Administration hired her, under its leader Roy Straker, as a way to spread a message to the American people. Her strong nature and daring opinions challenged those in the government who weren’t ready for it. “Lange endured a fractious relationship with Stryker, who seemed deeply discomfited by a strong-minded woman. He fired her in 1940, saying she was uncooperative” (Lubow).

Overtime, Lange developed more of her own style and was even a pioneer in discovering the importance of words in her images. “…She incorporated their words into her captions. She was the first photographer to do that systematically” (Lubow). Despite her pictures already giving incredible insight to her subject, she felt inclined to title her work, give it a name, give it a life. The captions that she had chosen to include filled in the gaps of what her pictures couldn’t explain for themselves. With the picture taken she allowed for her subjects to be seen and with her own words attached, she allowed for them to have a voice. But this doesn’t mean that her photography alone didn’t hold tremendous power, for in situations such as Migrant Mother, she made decided to not include a caption. She took into consideration when things were meant to be pondered, rather than blatantly explained. With Migrant Mother, she wished for people to simply look and furthermore, to wonder. These decisions of hers were so intentional, and I feel that it’s Lange’s character that shines through with them more so than anything else.

It’s clear that Lange was a talented woman with an undeniable artistic eye, but what stands out about her to me is her intention. Within the clip of the movie A Visual Life, a film directed and produced by Meg Partridge, Lange explains her passion for photography and visual life as a responsibility rather than a hobby. “This is the way it is, look at it…look at it,” she says heartfully. When you understand the thought process behind the photo, the picture slowly begins to evolve into something more powerful. I couldn’t even name how many times I had witnessed something that I wished the rest of the world could see—whether it be a moment between two siblings riding in a shopping cart or maybe teenagers sharing popcorn at the movie theater a few rows ahead of me. There are these moments happening everywhere, all the time, all around us. And when Lange caught a glimpse of these moments, she didn’t hesitate to make them permanent. With the flash of her camera, she found the power of communication. She found how a single picture of a mother and her children could give perspective to millions. It’s possible that some Americans didn’t understand the gratifications of the Great Depression until stumbling upon one of Lange’s images, and that is actually what she was trying to fix. Her mission was to let the world be heard and for it to be seen as the way it is.

Even as I turn on the news today and see families and children in Ukraine, I’m thankful for the journalists and photographers who are sharing their stories. Whether it be through Tik Tok, CNN or a New York Times article, there is a certain art behind the awareness of what’s happening there that reminds me of everything Lange stood for. Her work was a call to action that sent a message of hope, unity and awareness to all of its viewers. The photographer, Emilio Morenatti from the Associated Press, captured a mother surrounded by a sea of distraught Ukranions as they pile onto a bus towards Kyiv. The mother clutches her baby tight while holding on to her cell phone and bag, trudging through the crowd. In this picture, I see a similar strength to what we have come to notice in the woman in Migrant Mother. A mother finding the courage within, despite the circumstances, in order to provide security for her child. It’s truly a stunning photograph, and while looking, I can’t ignore the voice of Lange behind it “this is the way it is….look at it.”