Dusting Off the Stories Behind Images from “The Dust Bowl”

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.”

December 5, 2012

By Elizabeth Cachey ’15

Assistant history professor Dr. Amy Scott recently gave a lecture titled “Documenting the Dustbowl: Photographs, Music, and the Creation of Collective Memory,” in collaboration with the Peoria Public Library, Peoria’s public television station WTVP and the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Dr. Scott spoke before a screening of “The Dust Bowl,” a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns about one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in U.S. history. Burns’ highly anticipated documentary later aired on WTVP in two parts. The Dust Bowl was the moniker given by a reporter to the epicenter of dust, drought and depression on the Southern Plains from 1934 to 1939.

“Between 1890 and 1930, settlers revolutionized the landscape of the arid Southern Plains. These were boom times, and as long as seasonal rains fell, wheat farmers could thrive, even on this marginal land,” Dr. Scott said. “With the latest agricultural technology such as tractors and combines they turned over 33 million acres of native grasslands and produced a monocultural, profit-maximizing landscape of wheat.”

Over-farming on the marginal lands followed by years of drought and severe dust storms caused a major ecological disaster, economic devastation and social dislocation. Once broken by plows, the soil was picked up by winds and caused massive, suffocating dust storms that plagued the region. Some of these storms were a mile high and two miles wide and lasted for 24 hours. The land, that farmers depended upon for their livelihood, was destroyed and the dust clouds created unprecedented hardship and prompted a mass exodus from the region.   

“I wanted to get [the audience] thinking about the history of the images that Burns used in his film by speaking to the larger methodological issues of framing and interpretation in the American tradition of documentary photography,” Dr. Scott said.

Dr. Scott’s 45 minute lecture focused on the efforts of two photographers of the time, portrait studio photographer Dorothea Lange and unemployed college student Arthur Rothstein, who were hired by the government to document the effects of the Dust Bowl on the American people living there and the migration and the conditions for migrants in California.

“Photographers worked to document the depression in photographs that elicited an emotional response from the public and consequently mobilized public opinion in support of New Deal relief and recovery programs in rural America,” she said.

But “farm programs for a sparsely populated, arid region were a hard sell, especially when some of America's cities were suffering such severe employment rates,” Dr. Scott added.

Perhaps the most iconic photograph taken during this time was Dorothea Lange’s "Destitute pea pickers in California,” which later became known to the public as simply “Migrant Mother.” It’s a picture of a 32-year-old mother of seven looking downtrodden with two of her children clinging to her, hiding their faces. This photograph quickly became “emblematic of what the Depression meant to people” because it could “represent just about any injury that was caused by the depression: unemployment, extreme poverty, homelessness, the deterioration of the family,” Dr. Scott said.

However, Dr. Scott underscored this was not the whole story; there were, in fact, truths unknown to most people even today.

The woman in the picture is Florence Owens Thompson, a labor activist from Oklahoma, who had been living in California for nearly 10 years when Lange photographed her in a migrant workers’ camp in 1936.

The art of photography is focused on the craft of “image making.” “The process of framing a picture in a camera’s viewfinder, posing subjects and rearranging people and things in the photo, indicates the elements of manipulation and interpretation that enter the image-making process,” Dr. Scott said.

The viewers of a given photograph, therefore, are never getting the full story – all they receive is a small peek into whichever portion of the subject the photographer wants to show.

In the case of “Migrant Mother,” Dr. Scoot said “what the viewer doesn’t get is that Owens, while destitute, was also an active participant of the farm workers’ movement of the period.”

That was, however, Lange’s and other photographers’ intentions – to give enough information to the viewer in order to tap into the empathy of the nation to spur reform.

“Documentary photos are not based on neutrality or objectivity,” Dr. Scott said. Even in Ken Burns’ documentaries, “it’s still his interpretation of the events.”

Dr. Scott ultimately wanted to help the audience realize that there’s more than one side to the historical information we are exposed to throughout our lives. Because our past is part of our collective identity as Americans, it’s essential that we are aware of it.