Yesterday was Dorothea Lange’s birthday. This photograph–of a worker silhouetted against the sky–was part of Lange’s documentary project with Paul S. Taylor. In the 1930s, Taylor and Lange crisscrossed the United States, photographing and documenting the men and women who provided the labor for American agriculture. Taylor, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, collected socioeconomic data and wrote the texts that accompanied Lange’s photographs.
As part of her photograhic process, Lange interviewed her subjects. Her notebooks (now at the Oakland Museum of California) are full of transcriptions and notes from these conversations.
I won’t say too much more, here, about the broader framework surrounding this photograph here. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about the photograph itself.
The image depicts a woman, dressed in work clothing, silhouetted against a blank white sky. If you’ve ever been to the Imperial Valley, you know the area’s brutal heat and sun. It was—and still is—one of California’s richest agricultural regions. The Valley is naturally dry. It is wealthy only by virtue of irrigation. In its natural desert state, it is beautiful, unforgiving country. Lange’s photograph conveys the quality and substance of the Valley light—how hot, how bright. The sunbonnet is a necessity, and so is the jacket. In the photograph, you can just barely see the print of her dress, a light floral against a darker ground. The print undercuts the timeless, mythical quality of the image. It is, I think, a beautiful portrait.