- Culture on the Move:Depression-Era Documentary and Migrant California
The camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.—Dorothea Lange1
In recent years, leading up to and after the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, scholars have greatly enriched our understanding of one of the most innovative and accomplished photographers of the last great economic crisis, Dorothea Lange. Linda Gordon’s magisterial biography of Lange (Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits ), Anne Whiston Spirn’s elegant collection of Lange’s 1939 field reports (Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Notes from the Field ), and Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850–2000 (2008), which characterizes Lange as the “greatest exemplar” of a “humanist form of photography” developed in West Coast farm fields, all open new ways of understanding Lange’s life and visual labor.2 This spike in Lange studies has occurred in the context of a broader shift in photographic theory, away from the largely cynical judgment of photography as a disciplinary, imperial apparatus in the work of critics such as Susan Sontag, Allan Sekula, and John Tagg to a more sanguine assessment, in recent work by Ariella Azoulay, Susie Linfield, and others, of the medium as a democratic form of cultural engagement [End Page 841] capable of generating vital axes of empathy and solidarity.3
Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines is a welcome addition to these overlapping critical fields and to several additional subfields, including the history of progressive social science and the New Deal, California studies, and the history of protest literature. Her book examines the creative synergy that flowed from the close working and personal relationship Lange shared with her second husband, labor economist Paul Taylor, during the 1930s, when they devoted their professional energies to addressing the problem of migrant workers in California. Goggans argues that Lange and Taylor “fell in love over what they could do together, over the strength that her photography, so long unrecognized as a central and unique power, gave to his work” (161). Lange and Taylor, Goggans contends persuasively, taught each other how to see in new ways, and the result was an innovative, cooperative oeuvre that not only offered new insight into the significance of migratory workers and California to Depression America but also established new, more democratic modes of photographic practice and sociological field research.
California on the Breadlines is a gracefully written book that nimbly blends biography, literary analysis, and cultural and intellectual history in a narrative tracing the work these two immensely energetic, driven individuals completed together through mutual inspiration and assistance. The opening chapters of the book are composed contrapuntally, oscillating between accounts of Taylor’s and Lange’s early lives and careers, which intersected when Taylor asked permission to use several of Lange’s images to illustrate an article he was writing about Mexican farmworkers in California.
One strength of the book is the emphasis it places on Taylor, who is much less well known than Lange. Taylor was raised in Iowa, where he imbibed the Populist ethos of producerism, which he saw embodied on his uncle’s small farm. Taylor studied at the University of Wisconsin with noted Progressive economist John R. Commons, married his college sweetheart, Katharine Whiteside, served in World War I, and was gassed at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France, temporarily losing his sight after removing his gas mask to help lead fellow soldiers out of danger. Taylor emerged from the war believing that catastrophe provides opportunities for social and political renewal and redemption, a conviction that dovetailed with the Progressive-era faith in building a new, more rational social order out of the chaos of the modern world. After earning a doctorate in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, Taylor joined its faculty [End Page 842] and completed what is probably the first-ever study of Mexican migrant labor in California.