An American Exodus: A record of Human Erosions In the 1930s by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor


Dorothea Lange and her second husband, writer/social scientist Paul Schuster Taylor. Photo 1939, 2014, Imogen Cunningham Trust. via (pbs)


only w I perceive a photograph as something beyond a two dimensional art object. It allows us to observe the past without having to escape the present. A photograph exudes stories–stories about people, places, time, and something that happens in those intersection. In a century of staggering human stories, photography becomes a calling to capture stories that humans are incapable to tell. Dorothea Lange, one of the greatest photographers who was known for her vivid investigation during the great depression, is perhaps one of the few people who understood the function of photography for telling our hidden stories.


          Educated by the famous photographer Clarence White at Columbia University in New York City and spent her early twenties taking pictures of wealthy people in her successful personal studio in San Francisco, Lange soon realized her studio constrained her relentless curiosity of other layers of human realities. She felt compelled to capture the social crisis of the great depression that occurred at the time. She even said, “I was driven by the fact that I was under personal turmoil to do something.”  

          Sometime in December of 1935 at a small exhibition of her photographs, she met Paul Taylor, an economics professor of UC Berkeley, and soon to be her second husband. He was captivated by the raw human emotions captured on her photographs. It was him that encouraged Lange to continue capturing pictures of the human tragedy of the great depression. He believed that her picture could be used to mobilize the whole nation to help those struggling farmers. Paul Taylor was always behind her work. He was her champion and without him, none of her work would have happened. In the same year, Roy Stryker an economist who happened to be the head of information division of the FSA (Farm Security Administration), saw her work and immediately hired her as a field investigator and a photographer to work for his photography campaign. The aim of the campaign, like Paul Taylor’s perspective on photography, was meant to advocate social issues. Both Paul Taylor and Ray Stryker were trying to show to the entire nation through Lange’s photographs, the untouched reality of the great depression that people missed.

          What makes her work so timeless is because her reports from the field not just photographs, but the words of the people whom she had spoken, quoted directly (the ancient version of Humans of New York, perhaps?) It was not what she thought was their outspoken thoughts. She would always let her subjects to be themselves–to be human beings, making them oblivious to her camera.                                         

“Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon. We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is. The artist is a professional see-er”

Here are gathered some of my favorite pictures that I had scanned earlier from a book titled An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in The Thirties by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor (Public Library). This book was born out of creative collaboration between Dorothea Lange and her husband, Paul Taylor. This book was based on a book of the same title by them published by Reynal and Hitchcock in 1939. However, later in 1969, Paul Taylor revised the photography collection, the original text, and donated the collection to The Oakland Museum.























Thirteen million unemployed fill the cities in the early thirties. P . S. T . San Francisco / 1934




“Us people got to stick together to get by these hard time.” bound for Nipomo, California/ February 1936







Homeless family, tenant farmers in 1936. Cut from the land by illness, driven to the road by poverty, they walk from county to county in search of the meager security of relief. P.S.T . Oklahoma/ June 1938




“The collapse of the plantation system, rendered inevitable by its exploitation of land and labor, leaves in its exploitation of land and labor, leaves in its wake depleted soil, shoddy livestock, inadequate farm equipment, crude agricultural practices, crippled institutions, a defeated and impoverished people.” Arthur F. Raper. Georgia/1937










She: “I want to go back to where we can live happy, live decent, and grow what we eat.” He: “I’ve made my mistake and now we can’t go back. I’ve got nothing to farm with.” Brawley, California/February 1939







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