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Hotshots: Behind Dorothea Lange's Dustbowl

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Read Time: 3 min

In this series, we present a look-book of authentic photographs collected by the writers and editors here at Envato Tuts+. We hope these pictures inspire ideas, help kindle new projects, and give you a better understanding of visual communication.

Today's Image: Abandoned Farm in the Dustbowl, Coldwater District, near Dalhart, Texas, JuneAvailable via Public Domain through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dorothea Lange DustbowlDorothea Lange DustbowlDorothea Lange Dustbowl

A Closer Look at This Image

The 1930's found the United States in a number of crises. While the Great Depression is the first event that comes to mind for many, the Dust Bowl was raging in the southwest America, displacing at least a quarter million people from their homesteads.

On the back of these dilemmas, President Roosevelt initiated a number of economic programs that sought to stem the bleeding for a nation in peril. One of these, the U.S. Farm Security Administration, sent a young photographer named Dorothea Lange out to photograph the events of the Dust Bowl and how it impacted the residents of the midwest.

If there's one image of Lange's work that you might recognize, it's likely the Migrant Mother, an image of clearly concerned Dust Bowl mother cradling her children. The photo above is a great example of how Lange's documentation of the event went beyond portraiture and representation. Let's take a closer look at this image.

Reading the Image

During the Dust Bowl, prolonged drought that turned farms into swirling storms of dust and debris, and many farmers found their land rendered uninhabitable. When you understand that context, the barren field in this photo is really striking. Farming was no longer viable for hundreds of thousands who saw their land ripped and displaced by dust.

This poor old post has seen its utility come and go. It brackets a field that no longer serves its intended purpose. The juxtaposition of the useless fence and the abandoned rows, positioned at an angle to one another, tells the whole story.

Lange shot most of her Dust Bowl work with a Graflex Super D, a large format film camera that created very high definition images, even by today's standards. The sepia rendering of her film choice seems tailor-made for the dust and dirt that dominates the frame.

Reading a Photograph

In the comments below, I'd like to get your thoughts on this image. What do you think about the image after looking at it for one minute? What do you notice after studying it for several more minutes?

Reading photographs is a skill that you can develop. I've found that studying great photographs works its way into my own work and helps me improve as well. If you don't know where to start, check out the course How to Read a Photograph.

Check out other deep studies of images with these selections:

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