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Great Depression photos make lasting impression.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Just about everyone who pays any attention at all to photography - and many who do not - are familiar with Dorothea Lange's iconic photo "Migrant Mother."

Despite latter-day quibbling about the extent to which Lange posed the photo, and some questions about the accuracy of the story she told about it, her portrait of Florence Owens Thompson and Thompson's children remains the face of the Great Depression.

You look at it and think: John Steinbeck, dustbowl migrants, hope and despair.

What is much less known is that Lange spent part of a year - that was 1939, her last year, in fact, working for the Farm Security Administration before she was fired by administration director Roy Stryker - photographing workers in Oregon and Washington.

The extraordinary results of Lange's travels in the Northwest are in an exhibit at the University of Oregon School of Law, which is exhibiting four dozen digital prints of the photographer's recently rediscovered Northwest work.

The photos were unearthed at the Library of Congress by Harvard researcher Anne Whiston Spirn. They have been published in a book titled "Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports From the Field."

In terms of content, Lange's photos in Oregon are not appreciably different from the body of work with which most of us are familiar. She photographed migrant workers, poverty-stricken children, women in gingham dresses and the unpainted wood of cheap shacks.

But it's clear that over the years of her field work, Lange's vision had matured. By the time she reached the Northwest in 1939, it was spot-on.

Look, for example, at the intricate relationships in her photo from Klamath Falls of a young woman and two small children in front of a wood shack. Another woman - a grandmother? An aunt? - peers out through the window of the front door. Newspaper serves as the only visible curtain.

There is no green lawn here, just bare dirt; no white picket fence.

The children have bad haircuts. The little girl's white-collared dress echoes the woman's more elegant lace collar. Both look down in despair, although the little girl's expression is more emotional, less restrained.

The boy, his face dirty, looks straight into the camera with dull determination.

Lange's caption says it all:

"Young mother, 25, says, 'Next year we'll be painted and have a lawn and flowers.' "

A much more upbeat, and absolutely compelling, photograph in the show depicts a striking young couple, an unemployed logger and his wife, relaxing at a labor camp during the bean harvest in Marion County.

He is bare-chested, with a pencil-thin mustache, perfect physique and a devil-may-care attitude that should have gotten him a job in the movies. She is slender, demure and as good looking as a model from Vogue.

In a quirky and endearing detail, he has his Social Security number tattooed on his biceps. Seventy-three years later, in the age of Google, that means we can use that number to discover that his name was Thomas Cave, a man who would die years later in Portland having never been discovered by the movies.

So magical is the photo of Cave and his wife that it's been borrowed for a website - - about the "new Great Depression" we are living today.

The show runs another 10 days at the law school. Get over there and see it while you can.
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Title Annotation:Arts and Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 16, 2012
Previous Article:An opposing view.

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