(Editor’s Note: Today, JEP features a guest post by Bob Wynne on the ineffable and enduring power of photography. Bob is an award-winning journalist, public relations executive, bon vivant, and lifelong friend. He lives in San Francisco.)
Last week’s now-famous photo of Sen. Josh Hawley shamefully exhorting Trump supporters with a raised fist as they prepared to attack the U.S. Capitol took me back nearly five decades to Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange and a secluded corner of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington.
I was in the first year of my six-year campaign to earn a four-year degree. To say I was in no hurry to graduate would be an understatement.
I never really did understand the rush to finish school. My janitorial job in one of the campus dorms paid for my tuition ($160 a quarter) and for my just off-campus flop house room ($33 a month) where used needles littered bathroom countertops.
It was 1972. The Vietnam War was beginning to wind down, but it still posed a much greater threat to my health than those dirty needles.
The college deferment had given way to a lottery system. Your birth date now determined your fate in the draft and I knew, as did my contemporaries, that the Marine Corps was looking for more than just a few good men.
Dorothea Lange was exactly the distraction – and motivation — I needed. A large-format photo book of her work had been left on a table by some fellow undergraduate too lazy to return it to the shelf. Too lazy to search for another book, I picked it up.
As I recall, the book also held the work of other Depression-era photographers, including Marion Post Walcott, Walker Evans and Russell Lee. All were hired by the federal government’s Farm Security Administration to document the hardship facing tens of thousands of Americans during the 1930s.
There was one photo in particular that caught my eye. Taken by Lange in New Mexico in June of 1938 along U.S. 54 and titled “The Road West.” Photographers have copied the image – which shows a straight grey ribbon of asphalt plunging off into a black and forbidding landscape — thousands of times.
Meant to portray bleak and perilous times, the photo’s most uplifting quality can be found in its title, which suggests that following “The Road West” would bring better days.
I spent several hours viewing the dozens of other photos in the book (and the stories behind them) before walking across campus to the registrars’ office to see what the university offered in the way of photojournalism classes. It was a walk that would change my life.
I’ve enjoyed taking pictures ever since I was a boy armed with a beat-up Brownie box camera (and later an ancient Rolleiflex) roving the small towns and wilderness trails of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains where I grew up.
Since high school I’d had an interest in journalism. I liked telling stories and I quickly understood that photos helped hugely to bring a story to life.
After quizzing the registrar on pre-requisites (of which I had somehow managed to complete none) I applied for the UW’s prestigious journalism program, which focused on actual newsroom internships over lectures and libraries.
As things turned out, my draft number never did come up. I would eventually graduate and go on to spend two decades in newsrooms as a reporter and editor up and down the West Coast covering earthquakes, wildfires, dead Popes, plane crashes, economic collapses, political battles and King Tut’s visit to America.
And over those years, I found that Dorothea Lange’s images would often serve to help illustrate troubled times that the nation had survived – a comforting reminder that it would also survive last week’s shocking events in Washington DC.
Make no mistake, the frustration and despair Lange and her colleagues captured on film 80 years ago can be seen in the cynicism, doubt, anger and fear captured on the digital images and websites of today.
I’ve probably been to a dozen minor and major exhibits of Lange’s work – including the Oakland Museum of California’s excellent 2017 show Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing. Last fall the New York Museum of Modern Art permanently closed its also excellent COVID-19 shortened exhibit Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures.
But more such exhibits are surely in the planning stages as the work of Lange and her contemporaries gains renewed relevance during a global pandemic and a raw, bitter and now violent division not seen in this country since the Great Depression – if then.
The impact of a single image that honestly and completely captures a moment in time is hard to overstate. Consider Eddie Adams’ stark photo of South Vietnam’s police chief calmly executing a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street in 1969. Or Stan Stearns’ heart-breaking photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s passing casket in 1963. Or images of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Sometimes our brains are unable to believe what our eyes are seeing. But there it is.
These examples are all decades old and yet they carry weight to this day. It’s too early to say, but Sen. Hawley’s unforgivable encouragement of a treasonous crowd – captured by veteran photographer Francis Chung – may very well join such distinguished and hard-to-view company.
The circumstances of how the Hawley photo came to be and its impact will be studied for years to come, along with many other powerful images of egged-on, pro-Trump supports attempting to overthrow the government of the United States.
I was reminded — once again — of the powerful, lasting impact of the singular image early last year during a pre-COVID drive down California’s Central Coast. My on-again, off-again relationship with Lange was suddenly on again as I drove alongside the Pacific.
Just south of bustling Pismo Beach, lies the sleepy and largely unremarkable town of Nipomo. Amazingly, I remembered the name from that college photography class I’d signed up for decades before.
While Nipomo might lack any “must-see” attractions, it was very near here on a freezing, wet March afternoon in 1936 that Lange encountered a field worker who was struggling to provide food and shelter for her hungry children.
This chance encounter beside a pea field too frozen to be picked would change history.
The field worker, Florence Owens Thompson, silently sat with her children in a make-shift lean-to and asked no questions as Lange spent just ten minutes taking seven pictures with her heavy, battered Graflex camera.
Lange, who was eager to get home to San Francisco after a hard month on the road recording the struggles of migrant laborers throughout the West, was soon on her way.
Thompson, after a short stay in Nipomo for truck repairs, would eventually move on to the Modesto area where she would not only survive the Depression but go on to raise a large family.
But Lange’s photos of Thompson depicting the desperate conditions among America’s field workers quickly brought national attention and federal aid to the hard-pressed labor camps around Nipomo and throughout California’s Central Valley.
One photo in particular captured a worried, exhausted Thompson bravely staring past the camera while her disheveled children buried their heads behind her back.
“Migrant Mother” — as the photo would come to be known — would be reprinted countless times, an iconic symbol of a desperate era.
Interestingly, the town of Nipomo had little to do with the photo. Lange could have captured such a haunting image at any of the scores of migrant labor camps that dotted the valley in the 1930s.
And yet there I was. An old man now, still following in Lange’s wake. With the help of a town clerk and Google Maps, I quickly found the spot where the two women briefly met.
The pea plants are long gone, replaced by scrub brush, warehouses and a few homes badly in need of paint.
If you are curious, as I was, pull off Highway 101 at Exit 179 in Nipomo the next time you are in the neighborhood. Follow the old highway northbound for three-quarters of a mile along a pot-holed frontage road and you’ll come to the place where Lange and Thompson met.
Historic-minded city officials are considering placing a monument to mark the spot where “Migrant Mother” was created. But for now, the site remains just a littered, gravelly wide spot that 86 years ago briefly hosted history, providing the backdrop for an image that haunts us to this day.
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