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Migrant memories

Dorothea Lange exhibit honors class struggle during the Great Depression

Dorothea Lange’s America, a traveling exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum, will be on display through Jan. 5.


The sounds of working-class anthems from Oklahoma’s own Woody Guthrie fill the gallery at Gilcrease Museum showcasing classic American photographs depicting hardships of the depression era.

Dorothea Lange’s America, a traveling exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum on display through Jan. 5, is very much an Oklahoma story. But it’s also a universal story, and in many ways timeless. Lange did much of her work in California, where she captured as a Farm Security Administration photographer such iconic images as “Migrant Mother” and “White Angel Breadline.”

But Florence Owens Thompson, who decades later would reveal herself to be that anonymous weather-beaten “Migrant Mother” in the pea-pickers camp, was born near Tahlequah. And some 60,000 of her fellow Oklahomans would make their way west in an often futile attempt to escape the twin scourges of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Mark Dolph, the museum’s curator of history, said Lange’s work was “propaganda in the best sense of the word, based only on fact. It shows the conditions people were living in.”

The Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration were created by President Franklin Roosevelt to resettle destitute farmers in more productive areas, provide them with low-interest loans and implement soil conservation programs on the unproductive lands. To justify to Congress the need for the funds, photographers such as Lange were hired to document the plight of sharecroppers, migrant workers and other displaced families.

“So many of our Oklahoma farmers were sharecroppers or tenant farmers,” Dolph said. “One farmer might have 10 sharecroppers farming on his land. Prices are dropping, and they are having to give more and more of their crop to satisfy their tenancy. The farmer could hire one man with a tractor and push them off the land. Most people who owned their land managed to stay.”

Elizabeth Harrington of Broken Arrow checked out the exhibit in October with her friend, Lura Lynn Kelley, who was visiting from Rochester, New York. As they studied the images created by Lange and other Depression-era photographers, Harrington reminisced about her rural Kansas ancestors and how they survived the 1930s. Kelley shared stories about her mother, Lura Mae Houck Carstens, born in Stillwater in 1923. Both women said their families somehow managed to help others during those desperate years.

Kelley, a retired teacher, said she was moved as she looked at the photos “by the resilience of the people, and their determination to survive. And it’s hard not to make connections with the current situation, with folks trying to escape Central America for a better life with their families.”

The exhibit illustrates “just how devastating the Great Depression was,” Dolph said, particularly for people living in Oklahoma. 

“While every state was impacted, I would argue that Oklahoma suffered more because our economy was so dependent on agriculture, which had already gone into its own depression 10 years earlier,” he said.

Dolph was teaching college classes 11 years ago when the nation went into the Great Recession, and he remembers people comparing it to the Great Depression. “It was nothing like it,” he said. “There was a 24.9 percent unemployment rate when Roosevelt took office, and no social safety net.” 

Sarah Mitchell, exhibits coordinator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, happened to be visiting the Gilcrease in October, unaware of the Dorothea Lange exhibit before she arrived. “Every photo tells a story that’s been framed or cropped in a particular way to elicit emotion from the viewer,” Mitchell said. 

“We’re inspired by Dorothea’s exhibit,” said her mother, Patti Mitchell, an art teacher from Fort Worth. “The photos capture the endurance of the people. The images are so real and so raw.”

Dolph said he added to the exhibit “to make it as Oklahoma-centric as I could,” hence the Woody Guthrie songs. In Oklahomans and the Great Depression, Dolph took advantage of free Library of Congress images of photos shot in Oklahoma by Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein, created prints and hung them unframed from a string with clothespins as they would be in a darkroom.

“There are very few shoes in these photos,” Dolph said of the often-barefoot subjects in some of the exhibit’s most heartbreaking pieces. 

The photographs in the traveling show are all vintage prints, not digital reproductions, Dolph said, drawn from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. The Gilcrease version of the show also features all six of the images Lange shot of Thompson and her children during the few minutes she spent in the pea-picker camp on her way home after a month’s worth of field work. 

“Lange’s final exposure that cold March day brought everything into focus,” Dolph wrote for the wall text. “She understood that it was the mother who communicated the essential truth that she wanted to convey. ‘Migrant Mother’ will become the defining example of her documentary style, and an image that has since become a timeless symbol of resilience, strength and dignity in the face of crushing adversity.” 

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