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How Dorothea Lange invented the American West

There is no American West without state-funded photography. I don’t mean the Old West of cowboys and wagon trails but the West as it shows up in today’s discourse: a dead heartland preserved in sepia like a body in formaldehyde, a place both pre-industrial and past its prime, whose glory can only be felt as a dream deferred. The idea of such a place became ubiquitous in the 1930s and hasn’t disappeared since. It is a statement but also a riddle which politicians claim they’ll solve knowing full-well they can’t, and wouldn’t want to even if they could.

In 1935, the Roosevelt administration began hiring artists to travel the country and record the lives of people the New Deal was designed to help. Many of these artists worked for the Farm Security Administration, headed by an economist and enthusiastic amateur photographer named Roy Emerson Stryker. During his ten years with the FSA, Stryker hired eleven photographers, including Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Virtually all of his hires were born or educated in large East Coast cities. Nearly half were Jewish. Few had anything close to first-hand experience with agriculture.

Yet agriculture, by and large, was what they’d been hired to document. In their images of dust storms and empty barns, migrant workers and unemployed sharecroppers, Stryker’s photographers told a story of the American farmer laid low. It was, at the same time, a fantasy of what the American heartland had once been and could be again — one which soared higher with each new slump in the economy.

In 1937, Dorothea Lange photographed an ex-sharecropper waiting to collect his relief check. His hat is bent and frayed, his eyes are hard little triangles, his mouth is a long, lipless line. He’s trying so hard to hide his emotions that, paradoxically, they’re all but naked: his decades of proud independence, and his present humiliation are inseparable, each rendering the other more poignant. If this man — this man — deigns to go on unemployment, the photograph seems to say, then the situation in America must be apocalyptic. And, by the same token, if this man, and millions of other strong, noble men like him, is getting the support he needs from the Roosevelt administration, then the future of the heartland must be bright.

Ex Tenant Farmer

Ex-Tenant Farmer on Relief Grant in the Imperial Valley, California: Photograph taken by Dorothea Lang in March, 1937. Image by New York. Gift of Albert M. Bender, The Museum of Modern Art

This was, at the risk of stating the obvious, pure propaganda. But it was also a kind of mythology, broader and looser than propaganda, too powerful to be controlled by one political party at a time. Four generations later, Americans are still fighting over the implications of this mythology — entire elections have revolved around the fate of Lange’s sharecropper. No definitive conclusions seem likely, seeing as the FSA’s photographs were works of fiction all along, shrouded in speculation, censorship and more than a bit of hushed awe. It’s only right that they were created by people who had as much familiarity with the heartland as they had with Siberia.

The first thing the Dorothea Lange exhibition at MoMA needs to do — and does quite well—is free her from the history textbooks where she’s long been jailed. Exactly how long I don’t know, though I still vividly remember sitting in class as a kid, studying a crummy little photocopy of “Migrant Mother,” and convincing myself that the lady in the picture was my step-aunt Kim. Context, I’d accidentally demonstrated, is of the utmost importance in Lange’s photography. Where Atget or Kertész shot wildly mysterious images that were in some sense context-proof, Lange’s images tend to cry out for further information. Their aesthetic power is obviously bound up in the historical importance of their subjects, and usually that historical importance has had to be communicated through words, whether the FSA-approved captions they got at the time or the state-approved drivel they get in children’s textbooks.

You can, if you choose, dismiss Lange’s work as political cheerleading disguised as fine art, captions disguised as pictures. The evidence is clear enough: she took the FSA’s money, went where the FSA sent her, shot, for the most part, what the FSA wanted her to shoot. Art purists dislike her reliance on words, and political purists dislike her reliance on the state—put them together, and the elementary school classroom is practically the only place left for her.

The MoMA show should do something to change this. Lange was a lean, clever image-maker with an unmatched eye for misty horizons, chipped paint, and leathery brows, and her photography, as with all wide-ranging documentary art, is richer, politically and aesthetically, than people admit. I’m fascinated by the gap—sometimes narrow, but always present—between her beliefs and those of the New Deal, the ways in which her photographs worry their linguistic slots and test the limits of propaganda. By this, I don’t mean that Lange was some kind of Goya-esque radical, hiding subversive messages in popular images — if anything, she was more “New Deal” than the New Deal itself, more committed to diversity and more shaken by the Depression than FDR ever dared be.

She was born in 1895, grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (by some measures the densest, most diverse place on the planet at the time), and attended PS 62 on Hester Street, where she was one of the only gentiles — quite possibly the only — in a class of 3000 Jews. An outbreak of polio in 1902 left her with a lifelong limp. She was, in short, the kind of person with which the history of photography overflows — the outsider who’s always around others, as lonely as Thoreau and as brisk as a hot dog vendor. (The prevalence of people like this in photography led Garry Winogrand to argue that all great photographers were “Jewish,” either because they were literal Jews or because they were outsiders. By this logic, Lange’s non-Jewishness was the most Jewish thing about her.)

She was one of the only gentiles — quite possibly the only — in a class of 3000 Jews.

In 1935, she married the economist Paul Taylor. They “settled” in Berkeley, where Taylor taught graduate students, although it would be years before they spent any real time there together. They spent most of the decade traveling down the California coast and through the Midwest, interviewing and photographing many of the same people, supplying words and pictures for the same sorry stories. The relationship between image and story is of no little importance when discussing Lange, because it emphasizes what’s absent from her lesser achievements and overwhelmingly present in her finest.

It’s a paradox of Lange’s photographs that they depict people who are deeply, often painfully rooted in their environments — field hands, overseers, prisoners, refugees, migrants — yet tend to be framed in ways that make it difficult to see those environments. The close-up is both a strength and the central limitation of her work: it makes for images of great power but also sets her subjects adrift, rendering them mutely helpless and forcing us to search the little paragraph on the left or the right for answers to our questions — who is this? where are they? what’s going on? The photograph of the ex-sharecropper is a typical case: it’s a portrait of an individual, but it’s also something more, and less. Everything other than the man is out of focus — the relief office, the throngs of identically dressed people, etc. In the absence of real information, you can’t help but imagine some and then project it back onto the subject. The more you stare at the man, the more he hardens into a symbol — of his hardship, of course, but of everyone else’s, too. We feel for him, but we not allowed to understand him, except as a proxy for his caste, a mascot for New Deal intervention.

Six Tenant Farmers Without Farms

Six Tenant Farmers Without Farms: Photo by Dorothea Lange, taken in Hardeman County, Texas, 1937. Image by Museum of Modern Art

Not all of this is Lange’s fault. She was a photojournalist, not a fine artist; her negatives belonged to her bosses, who weren’t shy about throwing out what they didn’t want to see. Roy Stryker was notorious for punching holes in his photographers’ film to ensure they couldn’t publish rival versions; a few years later, when Lange photographed Japanese internment camps, her work was impounded by the military for fear of causing a scandal. When her portrait of a plantation overseer appeared in Land of the Free, a 1939 photobook featuring work by several FSA artists, it was cropped so tightly that nobody could see the trio of black farm hands staring balefully up at him. Cropped, the photograph is as corny as the name of the book it appears in; uncropped, it’s frightening and genuinely brave, a dispatch from a country where slavery-by-other-means is as banal as Coca-Cola.”

Even so (and lest I stumble into the cliché of the artist as heroic truth-seeker fighting know-nothing censors), Lange censored herself, too. After photographing six sharecroppers in 1937, she cropped out the sixth man—possibly, the exhibition’s wall text suggests, because he wasn’t big and strong enough. Like so much of the FSA’s photography, her work almost can’t help being larger than life: every worker embodies quiet, unconquerable strength, every mother glows with Motherhood. For all the years she spent around farmers, she seems to have been almost completely uninterested in how farming works, how all those machines and fields and croppers come together to produce food for New York and California. She’s at her best, instead, when she shoots workers doing nothing at all, just staring into the distance, being symbols or ciphers or mascots — anything, really, but political agents. For all the Communist slurs hurled at New Deal organizations, the one crucial aspect of 1930s proletarian life Lange never photographed for the FSA was organized labor, an oversight that’s about a hundred sizes too big to be accidental.

But the comparison between Lange’s photography and actual Commie propaganda is instructive, and a sign of Lange’s worth as an artist. At a glance, many of the images in the show echo socialist realist tropes — the virtuous woman standing in a field, for example (cf. Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, Dmitrii Moor’s posters, and Charles White’s paintings). Then you realize that the fields are mostly dust and the women are so thin they can barely stand:

“We made good money a pullin’ boils, when we could pull. But we’ve had no work since March … You can’t get no relief here until you’ve lived here a year. This country’s a hard country. They won’t help bury you here. If you die, you’re dead, that’s all.”

The woman who said this was living in the Texas Panhandle when Lange shot her. When the photograph was published in 1939, the final sentence served as a caption, but, for once, no caption was needed. The woman’s shadowed eyes; the feeble glitter of her wedding ring; her arms bent back on her head and neck as if straining to keep her body in one piece; the barren field in the distance: these things speak, terrifyingly, for themselves.

Woman of the High Plains

Woman of the High Plains: Photograph by Dorothea Lange taken in Texas Panhandle in June, 1938. Image by Museum of Modern Art

It’s as if Lange has hollowed out propaganda, preserving its basic forms but rejecting its gaudy enthusiasms. There will always be people like this woman, one bad harvest away from death. No number of New Deals or Five-Year Plans can save them all, and no caption can “spin” this photograph out of its despair. It’s an extraordinary image, extraordinary for what it shows and extraordinary for existing at all. Despite working for the propaganda wing of the White House, despite her East Coast ignorance of farming and farmers, Lange hit upon a cold, bitter truth and refused to let it go.


In times of crisis, if we’re going by a certain draft of the human comedy, people come together. And in times of crisis, according to another draft, people look out for themselves and nobody else. This is typically presented as an either/or: group or individual, “we” or “I,” A or not-A. There’s a touch of the self-fulfilling prophecy at work here, which perhaps explains why the financial crisis of the last decade created, on one hand, a Great Awakening of smug, callous self-interest and, at the same time, a stubborn tribalism. Both of these positions are fictions — it’s impossible to live strictly for yourself unless you’re Robinson Crusoe (and not even him), just as it is impossible to live strictly for your group — and as fictions, they’re both vulnerable to endless manipulations by advertisers, politicians and advertisers pretending to be politicians. The Trump years kicked off with a particularly brazen one: an ode to the rural white heartland demographic that voted him into the White House. Even George W. Bush, who got elected twice with a milder version of the same shtick, said it was weird shit:

The wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind … But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future.

A myth, mixed with just enough fact to make it stick. The helpless, never unionized American workers marooned in their own country; the empty horizon; the non sequitur happy ending; the hatred and bigotry carefully cropped out — point for point, motif for motif, the story Trump told in his inaugural address, and had been telling for the last year and a half, was a 21st-century version of the one the FSA created.

The story worked because virtually everyone in America grows up hearing it at home or in school or on television. The noble, white, downtrodden, non-coastal worker isn’t just a group but a sacred “we,” which even non-members are told to respect: a “we” so familiar, so homogeneous, so uncomplicated, so cropped and airbrushed that anyone, even a draft-dodging New York billionaire, can score points by claiming membership.

The story Trump told in his inaugural address was a 21st-century version of the one the FSA created.

Dorothea Lange played some part in creating this “we.” If not a whitewasher, she was more than happy to sentimentalize the lives of people she knew nothing about. The prairie poetry into which she sometimes lapsed became the sickly-sweet stuff of campaign commercials and State of the Union kickers. But she was also, I think, a skeptic of her own work and a critic of the myths she’d been hired to make. A photograph like the one of the Panhandle woman is a “we” and an “I,” A and not-A at the same time. All imagined communities, all speeches about “looking only to the future” break like waves against the hard singularity of her presence. And yet this woman plainly is a kind of collective, a vessel for something larger than herself — you can sense it in the low, reverential camera angle and the stark lines of her profile, like the face on a monument or a coin. She’s somewhere between an individual and a group: not a symbol, but the stuff from which a symbol might one day be made.

This is subtle, sophisticated image-making — why, then, have so many art historians taken Lange for granted? The answer has to be at least partly circumstantial. Pearl Buck, Margaret Mitchell, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Frank Capra, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood — if there’s one thing the most celebrated American artists of the Depression era have in common, it’s that their country doesn’t take them seriously anymore. The proud prize-winners have become 9th-grade kitsch. This strikes me as strange, and not just because America is still crawling out of its worst economic crash since the Crash. There’s a lot we could be learning from Depression-era artists: how the land is a character; how capitalism maintains power by risking apocalypse over and over; how humanism at its best needs to find ways of balancing the individual with the group, respecting the species without losing sight of the creature.

The last point might be the most important. If we’re to survive our demagogues, we’ll need sturdier defenses against their deceptions — an alloy of self-interest and community, more versatile than either by itself. Dorothea Lange’s photographs, like a lot semi-neglected Depression art, show us how these things might fit together, how one might contain multitudes without choking on them. Studying the Panhandle woman, I thought of another woman who’s a protagonist and a supporting character in her story. “The Grapes of Wrath” begins with Tom Joad, but it ends with Ma—Ma, whose selflessness borders on ruthlessness; Ma, the most indelible character because she lives for the other characters.

In John Ford’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” — released only a year after the book, before the dry dust of “historical fiction” had settled over it — Ma gets the last word. When I watched the film recently, I felt her speech move from her family to her womanhood, from gender to class, culminating in a grand, hard-won “we” that never strays too far from her own calm self:

“Woman can change better’n a man. Man lives in jerks—baby born, or somebody dies, that’s a jerk—gets a farm, or loses one, an’ that’s a jerk. With a woman it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. […] Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.”

“Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures” runs through May 9 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Jackson Arn is a New York-based critic. His Forward essay on the work of Martha Rosler won a first-place Rockower Award for arts criticism..

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