Luke McGuff (holyoutlaw) wrote,
Luke McGuff

“An American Exodus”

An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion
by Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor

In his essay in The Heart and Mind of a Photographer, A.D. Coleman focuses exclusively on An American Exodus. He says that its layout and design presage many of the design elements we see today on the web, and that documentary photographers working today could do well to find a facsimile of the first edition and examine it in depth.

Well, the Seattle Public Library has a copy on their reference shelves. During Lange’s lifetime, there was only the one edition. There have been a couple facsimile reprints of the first edition, sometimes with new accompanying essays. After Lange died, Paul Schuster Taylor produced a second edition, but it was revised and reorganized. It’s in the first edition (or facsimile reproductions) that we see their statement in its most clear and direct form.

It was not the first work to combine photos and text about the Depression and Dust Bowl. There had been Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with text by James Agee and photos by Walker Evans; and You Have Seen Their Faces, with text by Erskine Caldwell and photos by Margaret Bourke-White. But this was the first to feature actual direct quotes from the subjects photographed, and deep socioeconomic analysis from Paul Taylor.

I felt this was the distilled essence of Lange’s photography. That, although not the best reproductions of her work (given 1930s printing technology vs. today’s), this was the purest form of her work I’d seen. The book itself does indeed presage design techniques now common, and I agree with A.D. Coleman that it’s worth studying. Unfortunately, I got so wrapped up in it I forgot to take notes.

The endpapers are a stream of quotes from people they interviewed, printed in all caps, without attribution. They flow across the endpapers in a way that reminds me of Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger. Each chapter focuses on a different region, working westward. The chapters start out with photos and brief captions, followed by an analysis from Paul Taylor. Another element distinguishing “An American Exodus” is their use of newspaper facsimiles and reprints. A newspaper ad extolling the depth and fertility of the soil of the Oklahoma panhandle, saying the farmer could be living a life of ease in just a few short years, is followed by a photograph of the dustbowl captioned simply “Thirteen years later.”

I got a better sense of the interplay of elements in the catastrophe from Taylor’s words than I had from other reading I’ve done about the dust bowl (admittedly, not very much). It wasn’t just the drought, it wasn’t just the mechanization of farming from mule to tractor. Also involved were farmers taking payments from the government for crop reduction, part of which should have gone to their tenants and sharecroppers. Instead, most farmers used the money to buy tractors and kick the sharecroppers and tenants off the land.

Tractored out, Childress County Texas, June 1938
Photo by Dorothea Lange

All the farmers moved gradually west, until they wound up in the central valley of California. Here they were met by large farms that were already industrial, already mechanized except for the planting and harvesting. When labor was needed, it was needed by the thousands — Lange and Taylor reproduce an ad saying “1000s of cotton pickers needed.” The farms there had already been using Philipino, Japanese, and Mexican migrant labor for decades. Now they were flooded by displaced white people as well.

Paul Schuster Taylor made a graphic representation of the migrant labor flow: An outline map of the US, the tributaries of the flow start further to the north and east than I had expected them to. But they build across the south, as the streams unite through Texas and Oklahoma, until they become a vast sideways river dumping into California. The sudden influx of labor drove down the already near-starvation wages.

And what happened to the migrants after the harvest? They had to choose between food and gas money. The car was necessary to follow the work, but there was never enough money for food and car maintenance both. If the crop failed, or if they arrived too late for a place, they were stuck.

The final chapter of the book makes suggestions for reform, calls for action. But you know, I couldn’t read it. I was already pretty wrung out by the sustained reading of the previous chapters, and I thought that reading the suggestions made in 1939, ignored completely or only half-executed, would have been too much.

NOTE: Since I’m working without Coleman’s essay at hand for reference, I may have either misquoted or unintentionally plagiarized. My apologies.

Here’s another article on An American Exodus, from the University of Virginia’s American Studies program. And here is a contemporary review of the book, by Paul Strand.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

Tags: a.d. coleman, dorothea lange, paul schuster taylor, photobook reviews, photography, review

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