Return to Articles


October 15, 2002 - February 9, 2003 at J. Paul Getty Museum, West Los Angeles
October 17 - November 30, 2002 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Elenore Welles

Photographs produced by Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol remain an enduring record of the suffering and poverty caused by the Great Depression in the 1930s. The artists were associated the f/64 Group, a distinguished group of photographers who documented the social history of the era. They included notables such as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, to name a few.

Lange and Bristol captured the pervasive symptoms of a country in dire straits with evocative black and white photographs clarifying the stark realities of breadlines and labor demonstrations; bleak urban dramas of the unemployed. Lange’s General Strike, Street Meeting, shows San Francisco strikers held back by police. Holding picket signs, handwritten in different languages, their hardened faces betray their resolve.

In rural areas, they exposed the plight of destitute farmers and migrant workers. In 1935 Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document southern sharecroppers who moved west to California. Southern farmers, eager to produce “cash crops” but ignorant about farming, overused and undernourished the soil. When the land went fallow, the workers were forced to migrate, settling in tent camps along the Central Valley. They became tenant farmers, vulnerable to landlords who reinforced conditions of dependency and poverty.

James Agee, when working with Walker Evans in depression era Appalachia, stated, “it seems obscene. . .to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings. . .in the name of ‘honest journalism.’”

Indeed, Lange found the wretched squalor of the tent camps an assault on the senses. But it was seen through the sobering lens of compassion. She pierced the membrane of misery to record gritty resolve under deplorable circumstances. Scenes such as Farm Workers disclose the hardships endured by workers forced to carry huge barrels to weighing stations. Often joining workers in the fields, she documented their purposeful dignity and their threadbare clothes--the mantle of the rural farmer. As reflected by the smiling Mexican workers in Cantaloupe Pickers, they were grateful merely to be employed.

Lange, unlike Evans, did not spend long periods of time waiting for the perfect shot. If subjects readied themselves when she approached with her camera, for her part in the creative interchange she started with little idea of what she would photograph. However, her subjects were ultimately viewed through the prism of her aesthetic impulses, and her “do not meddle, do not change” principle seems idealistic at best, though also ingenuous.

For example, there are five versions of Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, an image that continues to provoke strong emotional reactions. In this classic and immediately recognizable portrait, Lange captured hunger in it’s rawest form. The tightly composed photograph shows a gaunt, emaciated mother and her clinging children. Too weak to move, they are close to starvation; the mother’s wrinkled face appears older than her 32 years.

Lange stated, “a good photographer is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects.” If, by Agee’s standards, she was being intrusive, the means were justified by the public awareness that was aroused. Her photographs promoted government programs to assist those in need.

Lange’s salient strength was her empathy. Throughout her career she continued to advocate for the disadvantaged. During World War II she recorded the efforts of women and minority workers in wartime industries at California shipyards. She also documented the forced government relocation of Japanese American citizens to internment camps. Despairing conditions were juxtaposed with signs of courage, dignity and endurance. Her compelling depictions contributed to the reparations made by the government for the wartime injustices.

The Getty exhibit will include more than 80 of Lange's prints dating from the 1920s to the 1960s. They include vivid photographic essays from Vietnam, Ireland, Pakistan and India.

In the pre-TV era of the 1930s, photographic images took on great importance, reaching a broad audience through popular publications. As one of the original photojournalists for Time/LIFE magazine, Horace Bristol was influenced by Lange and shared her commitment to unmanipulated photographs and high technical standards. Like Lange he photographed the city’s poor and dispossessed, and shared her interest in the plight of migrant workers. His Grapes of Wrath series documents the numerous expeditions he made with her to the Central Valley. When author John Steinbeck accompanied him to collaborate on a story for Time magazine, they photographed and interviewed the Joad family. The Joad’s became the namesakes of Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath. Eventually made into a film, the migrants' plight was brought into the homes and social conscience of millions of people.

Bristol contended, “The greatest pleasure to me lies in the satisfaction of having told stories that otherwise might not have been told.” His compassionate eye captured Ma Joad’s stoic demeanor and Rose of Sharon’s vacant stare as she nursed her baby. Joad Family Applying for Relief conveys the family’s urgency as they present their government forms. The power of these images summon emotion beyond words.

During World War II Bristol was recruited by photographer Edward Steichen to document the war as an officer in the U.S. Navy; the results were definitive wartime photojournalism. He traveled with troops on aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter planes, capturing the danger and the immediacy of battle. His visual focus, however, continued to be human interest. His most recognized image from this period, PBY Blister Gunner, Nude, depicts a pilot who took his clothes off to rescue a downed officer.

Bristol's Post-World War II documentations of the modernizations of Japan, Korea, China and Burma will be included in the Stephen Cohen Gallery exhibition.

Lange and Bristol demonstrated their visual acuity by emphasizing the durability of the human spirit. In both of these exhibitions, it is clear why their visions of strength and courage amidst devastation exerted a profound influence on documentary photography.