In November 1938, Dorothea Lange snapped a black-and-white photograph at a gas station in Kern County, California. A couple of buildings and trees are visible in the background—vague signs of life. In the foreground we see an air machine, made of wood and resembling a bedroom wardrobe, its door swung open to reveal a tangle of black hose inside. A sign atop the machine reads, “AIR.” And on the inside of the door is a large, hand-painted message.
this is your
let the big
men take it
Look at the picture long enough and the word “AIR” starts to seem odd. For me, the letters drift apart, and I’m suddenly unsure how to spell or even pronounce the word. Repetition and capitalization contribute to the disorienting effect.
On this early June day, as I sit at my desk writing about Dorothea Lange, the air is in fact odd. Wildfires in Canada have sent smoke over the northeastern United States, creating an ashen sky that smells like burning. Yesterday, windows in my studio cast rectangles of amber light on the floor even though the sky remained an acrid gray. For the first time, I can imagine some of the horror of the Dust Bowl experience that Lange photographed in the 1930s, the sun blocked out for days and the air deadly and thick. It’s funny in a way to have photographed an air machine at such a time, a machine intended for filling the deflated tires of cars carrying families fleeing west—a machine to keep you going. But when the sky itself is toxic, it takes on another meaning. “Air,” it pleads, like a patient awaiting a ventilator. “Air,” it shouts, like a curbside huckster. It’s all anyone wants: air. You can almost imagine another machine just outside the frame that says “water,” and perhaps others farther down the road offering “food” and “shelter”—vending machines for life. Insert a nickel and get everything you need. And yet, on closer inspection, the air hose in the machine Lange photographed doesn’t appear to attach to anything. Like everything else in the catastrophic collision of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it seems to be broken.
“Dorothea Lange: Seeing People,” an exhibition that runs from early November through March 2024 at the National Gallery of Art, assembles some of the photographer’s best-known and most poetic images. Beginning in 1919, with Lange’s intimate portraits of wealthy clients and artists in San Francisco, the exhibition includes the years in which Lange turned away from her photography studio and found employment with her second husband, Paul Taylor, at the newly established Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA was first known as the Resettlement Administration, created by presidential order in 1935 with hopes of appeasing progressives upset by the Department of Agriculture’s failure to provide aid to poor, rural farmers. Its goals included resettling those farmers on better land, providing grants and loans for modernization, educating farmers on nutrition and hygiene, and providing medical care. Along with nine other photographers sent out across the United States, Lange was assigned to document rural poverty. The goal was to provoke sociopolitical change by bolstering support and funding for FDR’s New Deal programs.
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