Transcription of print verso: Drought Refugees from Oklahoma Camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cottons [cotton fields]. Family of seven. The official at the border (Cal-Arizona) inspection service says that on this day Aug 17, 1936 23 carloads and truckloads of indigent families out of the drought counties of Oklahoma and Arkansas had passed through that station, entering California up to 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Hardship weighs heavily on Dorothea Lange’s Drought Refugees. Lange’s eye for corporeal strain permeates her revealing, poignant portraits. The gestures, stances, expressions and postures of severe poverty during the Dust Bowl communicate the slow deterioration of the individual alongside the land. Through the description written on this print’s verso, Lange reveals that the family presented are not just the three pictured, but in fact, seven. The small dirty foot edging into the bottom right of the image is the only hint of the remaining family beyond the frame.
Like traditional depictions of the Holy Family, the mother and child tightly cling to one another, situated slightly separate from the patriarch, at rest during their Depression-Era flight into Egypt. Lange’s use of a classic formal composition, as Barbara Haskell notes, imprints a universality on her subjects, and it is ‘precisely for this reason that they functioned so compellingly as human documents and elicited complex emotional responses.’ Documentary photography is not, with Lange, or any other photographer, an unmediated reflection of reality, but rather, one creatively rendered.
Taken in the summer of 1936, Lange made this photograph while working for the Resettlement Administration (RA). During the second phase of the New Deal President Roosevelt initiated the RA in 1935 as a means of coordinated rural relocation relief for those displaced by the Depression. The story of the RA was told to the American public through artists hired by Roy Stryker, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothestein. Reflecting on the project decades later, Stryker writes, ‘I expected competence. I did not expect to be shocked at what began to come across my desk...Every day was for me an education and a revelation.’ Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs taken under the Resettlement Administration, and later the Farm Security Administration, Lange’s Drought Refugees reaches through time, stirring the viewer with its heart wrenching beauty.