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Great Depression Photos On Exhibit at LA's Getty Museum - 2002-11-13


The Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of poverty and dislocation in the United States, especially in southcentral states like Oklahoma and Texas. Displaced farmers and their families headed West to California to work in farming camps, where their images were captured in haunting photographs.

The folk musician Woody Guthrie told their story in song.

"The rain quit and the wind got high and a black old dust storm filled the sky. And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine and I poured it full of this gasoline and started, rocking and rolling, over the mountains out towards the old peach bowl."

The California photographers Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol told the story in pictures. "The subjects were the victims of a double tragedy. The great depression of the 1930s left millions poor. At the same time, the fertile fields of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas were transformed by drought into a massive "dust bowl." Judy Keller, associate curator of photographs for the Getty Museum, explains. "Those states were the ones hardest hit, not only by the economic slump of the depression, but also by the really unusual climatic conditions that created the dust bowl effect in those states," said Judy Keller.

The federal government commissioned Dorothea Lange to document conditions of the migrants, who fled their drought parched states for California. "This required recording the jalopies that they loaded with all of their possessions, documenting the families, the women trying to take care of the families, as they traveled," she said. "And then documenting the camps that they finally settled in."

One classic picture in the exhibition, called Migrant Mother, shows a woman huddled in a tent with two of her children. The youngsters are hiding their faces and the woman seems plagued by worry. Yet she looks resolute. The subject, Florence Thompson, was a Cherokee Indian, and Judy Keller says her image is compelling. "Florence Thompson herself was a very handsome woman," said Judy Keller. "She has a very distinctive jaw line, high cheek bones and her jaw is set in a very determined way. She has, I think, in her face both male and female qualities."

Ms. Keller speculates that is part of the reason for the photograph's appeal. It has become a classic image of the Great Depression, which millions of Americans endured on the farms and in the cities.

Eighty photographs by Dorothea Lange are on display at the Getty Museum. They include portraits of her first husband, the painter Maynard Dixon, and their children, and later pictures taken while she traveled through Asia with her second husband, an economist and development specialist.

Ms. Keller notes they visited India, Pakistan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia, among other countries. "And she traveled with him and tried, even though they were closely chaperoned on these trips, she would visit schools, go into the cities, and make photographs of the people," she said.

A companion exhibit looks at the work of photographer Horace Bristol. Influenced by Lange, his older and better known colleague, Bristol toured California's central valley in the winter of 1937-38. He also hoped to document life in the farm camps, together with the noted author John Steinbeck. The writer was planning a magazine article, and Bristol was to provide the illustrations.

Steinbeck instead turned what he saw into a novel, published in 1939 as the classic The Grapes of Wrath. Ms. Keller says that, after the book came out, Horace Bristol's images helped determine the look of the movie released under the same name, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. "Bristol's photographs were used not only by the magazines but by the movie makers to cast and costume and create story boards, art direction for the film," she said.

The images of the California farm camps, and other photographs by Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol, will be on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles through February 9.