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Dorothea Lange
This intrepid photographer documented Depression-era Americans’ pride and spirit
Spanish Americans, 1943

When my father, Rondal Partridge, was 17, he began working for Dorthea Lange, best known for her photograph, Migrant Mother. He worked in Dorothea’s darkroom, packed her camera bags, and drove her up and down the back roads of California. “Slow down, Ron, slow down,” she would insist as they crept along at twenty miles an hour. When they saw something interesting, they stopped: a migrant camp, a piece of broken-down farm equipment, people in a field picking crops. Dorothea took thousands of pictures for the Farm Security Administration, trying to capture the experiences of the dust bowl refugees who had drifted out to California, looking for work.

“Their roots were all torn out,” Dorothea said about the migrants. “I had to get my camera to register the things about those people that were more important than how poor they were—their pride, their strength, their spirit.” Ron and Dorothea walked into camp slowly, her limp from childhood polio immediately setting the migrants at ease. They knew she understood being struck down by adversity. She sometimes asked for a glass of water and drank it very slowly, letting people get used to her presence. Then she set her camera on a tripod, and often began photographing by asking a child to pose for her.

One boy stood in front of her camera, his stubbley head looking like it had been shaved for lice, his face grubby, but a look of tender pride in his eyes as he held up two fat, squirming puppies. Dorothea titled the photograph Migrant People (1938), letting the boy represent the many difficulties and strengths of the migrant workers.

Recently, I asked my father if he saw many dogs when he was on the road with Dorothea. He shook his head. “Often there wasn’t enough food for the kids,” Ron said. “Not many migrants brought a dog.”

Despite their meager resources, a few migrants did bring their dogs. Dorothea included them in her photos, alongside their owners in Fruit Tramp (1935) and Spanish Americans (1943). It’s easy to imagine how important these dogs could be, as the refugees wandered around with their “roots all torn out.” The feel of dogs’ silky ears, the trusting look in their eyes, the smell of grass and dust and sun in their coat: All this must have been reassuring in a world suddenly turned over.

In the late ’30s and early ’40s, Dorothea took several trips out of California. Once again we see her posing a child with his dog in Elm Grove, Okla. (1938). The contrast with the migrant boy and his puppies is striking. The boy wears patched and worn clothing, but he looks clean and well-fed. The Depression had not forced his family onto the road. In Iowa, Small Town Life (1941) as the Depression is easing, we see a lesser-known version of one of her popular photographs. It includes a farmer’s dog who has wandered into the frame. Alert and bright-eyed, it’s easy to imagine he just rode into town in the back of a pickup truck, happy to be with the other farmers he knows from previous trips.

In fields and camps and small towns, Dorothea did exactly what she set out to do: photograph the strength and resilience of the American spirit. And side-by-side with these courageous people are their beloved dogs.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 19: Summer 2002
Elizabeth Partridge is the author of Restless Spirit and This Land Was Made for You and Me.

Photograph by Dorthea Lange

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Submitted by Adam | July 30 2010 |

As a photojournalist-turned-dog-photographer, I particularly find this view of Lange intriguing. Having learned about "Migrant Mother" and Lange's other FSA work during the Depression years in journalism school, I have always held her role in documenting that period of American history in high regard. I don't know that I ever thought about dogs in her photography, and what they may have meant to the families -- emotional support, yet another mouth to feed. Very interesting.

Submitted by Maria | January 11 2011 |

I was lucky enough to stumble upon an exhibit of photos by Dorthea Lange in a remote town on the Oregon coast just last year. This exhibit moved me in many ways.

I am inspired by how your article reflects on Dorthea's portraits of depression era people and their dogs. It makes me realize how important these dogs must have been to them and wonder what their roles were? Dogs provide many roles in my life everyday. Most of all- undaunted companionship, and I'm sure that was just one role they played to the people in Dorthea's photos.

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