Dorothea Lange: 'Daring To Look' "No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually," the legendary photographer once said. A new book documents hundreds of the Depression-era images she took and the descriptions she wrote of them.
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Dorothea Lange: 'Daring To Look'

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Dorothea Lange: 'Daring To Look'

Dorothea Lange: 'Daring To Look'

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There is a black-and-white photograph that's one of the most enduring images of the Great Depression. It's called "Migrant Mother." It shows a poor farm worker, her hand touching her face in worry. Two ragged children clutch her shoulders, and a baby is wrapped in cloth in the mother's lap.

This photo was taken by Dorothea Lange. A new book documents hundreds of Lange's photos of the dust bowl and the Depression and the descriptions she wrote of them. It's called "Daring to Look."

The author is Anne Whiston Spirn, and she joins us now from WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program.

Professor ANNE WHISTON SPIRN (Landscape Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Author, "Daring to Look"): Thank you.

SEABROOK: That image called "Migrant Mother" is one of the most-reproduced photographs in history. Dorothea Lange took it in California in 1936. She had a job working for one of the New Deal agencies, the Farm Security Administration. I wonder: Why did the government send out photographers to those places?

Prof. SPIRN: In the beginning, the first job of the photographers was to show the conditions that existed across the country. Then as the 1930s went on and the government programs had been implemented, her job shifted to photographing the success, presumably, of these programs.

Of course, Lange being Lange found that things weren't working out in the field quite as well as the bureaucrats would like. So she took photographs by 1939 not only of the successful programs but also of conditions that continued to persist.

SEABROOK: You focus on the year 1939, after she took "Migrant Mother." Why 1939?

Prof. SPIRN: In 1939, she started writing longer reports to go with her photographs, which were really stories from the field.

SEABROOK: Would you turn to one of those photos?

Prof. SPIRN: Sure.

SEABROOK: Describe for me the picture, if you would, and then read for me from Dorothea Lange's notes.

Prof. SPIRN: Well, there's a picture of a woman named Queen, and along with Queen is a group of her fellow farm wives ranged across the steps to the church, and Lange says: Women of the congregation on the church steps with brooms and buckets. Date: July 5, 1939. Subject: Annual cleaning-up day at Wheeley's(ph) Church.

Accidentally learned at Gordonton(ph) that everybody in the community was gathering at the church, going to take their dinner. Farm women of all ages, men and children, one six-months-old baby and one woman on two crutches were still there finishing up the cleaning at about 2:30. Had to talk to the head deacon to get permission to photograph. They very much want to have a print showing the church and the grounds, very proud of their church, spacious, well-shaded church yard and very proud of the fact that they keep everything so tidy.

SEABROOK: We came across a quote of Dorothea Lange talking about what motivates her. She said no country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually that I know of. I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves. What's your favorite picture?

Prof. SPIRN: Oh, I have so many. I think that one of my very favorites is this photograph from Yakama, Washington, of a little boy and his sister. They're camped with their family along the Yakama River, and the little boy, who can't be more than about three or four years old, has his arm around his sister, who is just a little bit littler than him, and there's this big roll of something that just comes up from the upper left and straight across the photograph, and when I first saw it, I thought gosh, what's that?

It seems to me like the topic of the photograph is this gesture of these two small children with this - in front of this truck piled with possessions, and then Lange tells us, when you read the story, that this family is from Oklahoma. They have nine children, and they've been on the road for three years, and then she says still carrying a roll of kitchen linoleum.


Wow. That roll of linoleum is the memory of home and the hope for a new home, and once you read that in her story, the roll of linoleum in the photograph becomes a character in the drama, and the photograph enlarges.

SEABROOK: And you can see that photograph at our Web site, Anne Whiston Spirn, author of the new book, "Daring to Look." She's also a professor at MIT. Thanks so much for joining us.

Prof. SPIRN: You're most welcome.

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