Thursday, April 26, 2007

While this is a depression era photo I can't help but think it was taken yesterday.
This is truly a beautiful photo.

A dark, drizzly afternoon in March of 1936. Dorothea Lange has just finished a month-long assignment chronicling the plight of migratory farm laborers near Los Angeles and is driving north along Highway 101 to her comfortable residence in the Berkeley foothills. "Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night," Lange would later recall. "My eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead. I felt freed … ."

Just after passing through Santa Maria, on the outskirts of Nipomo, Lange passes a crude wooden sign on the side of the road, proclaiming "Pea-Pickers Camp." The 40-year-old Lange already has collected a month’s worth of field notes and photographs, and the staff photographer for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration resists the temptation to pull over and take more pictures.

Twenty minutes later, just before she reaches San Luis Obispo, Lange changes her mind and makes a U-turn on the barren highway. At Nipomo, "like a homing pigeon," she turns onto a muddy road and discovers a sprawling, squalid campsite of nearly 2,500 migrant farm workers battling starvation and the elements. They had been lured to the camp by newspaper advertisements promising work in the pea fields, only to be left stranded when protracted, late-winter rains destroyed the crop.

Almost spontaneously, Lange zeros in on a woman and a handful of children huddled in a tattered, lean-to tent. "I was following instinct, not reason," Lange recalled. "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet."

Lange pulls out her Graflex camera and snaps a quick, wide-angle portrait of the rag-tag family. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, she will take five more photos, each time moving closer to the lean-to. The final photograph is a vertical portrait of the mother, her despair-ridden eyes staring anxiously off-camera, an uncertain hand raised to a drawn mouth.

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