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Dorothea Lange, (1895–1965)
Squatters along highway near Bakersfield, CA. Penniless refugees from the Dust Bowl., 1935
Photographic materials on paper
7 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (19.37 x 19.37 cm)

Object Type: Photography
Technique: Photography
Credit Line: Purchase, Scripps Collectors' Circle
Accession Number: 2013.3.2

I was drawn to this photograph because it combines what is most well-known about Dorothea Lange’s work in a less familiar but still distinctive image. Many will identify Lange with Migrant Mother, perhaps the most famous photo of the Great Depression. Other images of Lange’s also come to mind: the long breadline of people with a single man turned toward the camera and her photographs of the round-up of Japanese Americans in 1942, including the photo of Japanese American children reciting the pledge of allegiance. In these famous photographs, Lange combines her critical eye with her empathic recognition of the individual among the mass.

This photograph is harder to read and a riskier document of the crisis of the Depression. At the same time, I find it thought-provoking and moving. A group, identified only as “squatters” and “penniless refugees,” is united by something we cannot see or a conversation we cannot hear. Are they a single family or several? Do they know each other? How did they come together? Where are they going? Where are they from? We guess, as contemporaries would probably know, that they were among the many poor and displaced who made their way through the Central Valley of California, looking for work. (John Steinbeck would travel up the valley with photographer Horace Bristol in 1937. After The Grapes of Wrath met with great success in 1939, Bristol’s photographs illustrated an article on the book in Life magazine). In Lange’s photo, the heap of bedding and clothes in the foreground and the two cars at the periphery suggest transience; this is no long-term resting place. The “highway” is a thoroughfare for a mass movement of people displaced by economic and environmental disaster. The tree in the center of the group will be there when they have gone. No one acknowledges the photographer’s (or viewer’s) existence, although the boy turned toward us breaks up the circle. The girl seated on the truck is the isolated individual away from the crowd, something I recall from Lange’s other photographs, but here she does not offer any information or connection to us. We are left to contemplate this cluster of humanity, hauling their belongings and comprising some kind of sustaining world, with no clear goal or solution. This is the underside of the myth of American mobility, the romance of life “on the road” that continues to consume the national imagination.

Julie E. Liss
Professor of History


Illustrated in Dorothea Lange Farm Administration Photographs, 1935-1939, Vo. 1, #2-8 (1980), 133.

Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895 and studied photography in New York City before the First World War. In 1919, she moved to San Francisco, where she earned her living as a portrait photographer for more than a decade. During the Depression's early years Lange's interest in social issues grew and she began to photograph the city's dispossessed. A 1934 exhibition of these photographs introduced her to Paul Taylor, an associate professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and in February 1935 the couple together documented migrant farm workers in Nipomo and the Imperial Valley for the California State Emergency Relief Administration.
The most poignant and moving photographs from Lange's travels convey a mood rather than describing circumstances or activities: the man hunkered at the edge of the field, the mother and child in the tent opening, and the trio of men, one of whom casts a defiant glance at the photographers. The photographs are character studies that render the textures of skin and clothing with an artist's eye and depict posture, gesture, and gaze with an ethnologist's. But their subjects are anonymous and the pictures become genre studies: "the pea picker" or the "jobless man on relief."

Two subjects dominate Lange’s photographs of the Great Depression: portraits of human suffering and run-down landscapes. Here, those themes meet. A family—migrants from the Dust Bowl that ravaged Canada and the American Great Plains—makes camp in central California. Unlike her portraits, these figures do not confront the viewer. Rather, they exist as part of a decaying landscape, with barren grass and broken down cars. These automobiles, along with the makeshift bedding in the foreground, highlight the migrants’ poverty, and the family’s huddled presence transforms old machinery into a cruel reminder of the 1920s’ roaring failure. Lange depicted the human cost of the Depression, an America of abandoned machines and abandoned people.

David Kuhio Ahia, PO ’18
Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern

There are no marks on the photograph. On the back of the photo, there is stamped text that says: Kindly use the following credit line:
Another stamp in blue ink: RA 961 E
And, in pencil, across the middle of the back of the work: Ra 961 and what appear to be initials

vintage silver print

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