My dad grew up on a farm in Oklahoma in the 1920s and '30s. I asked him once, "What did y'all raise?"
His answer: "Dust, mostly."
I never saw any pictures of him doing chores or working the fields, but a recent exhibition of photos from that era brought to mind what his life might have been like. They're not pretty pictures.
Dorothea Lange was one of a dozen photographers assigned by the Farm Security Administration to cover the lives of rural Americans in the 1930s. The team covered the map to produce a quarter-million images of migrant workers, hardscrabble farmers, share-
croppers -- a cross-section of hardship.
Faces etched by harsh climate, deprivation and discouragement peered into the lens of Lange's camera. Many of those eyes -- the windows of the soul -- say a weary "I'm just tired." Others reveal a strength and resolve that dust and mud and sweat cannot hide.
As part of Portland State University's photo exhibition, Linda Gordon, author and professor of history at New York University, lectured on Lange's life and work.
Lange was self-taught in photography, Gordon said. Her portrait studio in San Francisco catered mostly to the wealthy elite, who were attracted to Lange's focus on individuality. As Lange's growing social consciousness drew her into the streets and soup lines of the Depression, those same skills put a human face on inhuman conditions.
Lange's assignment brought her to the rural Pacific Northwest, where her subjects were often pictured in the midst of their work, prying a living from the land with sweat and skill. The women, Gordon said, are shown "creating civilization amid primitiveness." The children are at once carefree and desperate.
Young and old, smiling and grimacing, worn out and vibrant, these faces are dirty and treated with dignity.
"To Lange, these people were the salt of the earth," Gordon said.
I call them heroes. Amid dust and mud, poverty and hunger, these were people who kept getting back up on their feet. Whether it was strength of character, work ethic or faith, they found a reason to keep moving.
Times are hard again. Many folks are under more pressure than they've ever known, whether their tribulation is economic or moral or spiritual. But looking at the faces of heroes in the midst of Depression, hope stirs.
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Four dozen of Dorothea Lange's photos are on display through Nov. 25 at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Student Union.
After that, the exhibition will be available for touring to other communities, not only in Oregon but also throughout the Pacific Northwest. David Milholland, of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, says interested groups are encouraged to contact him at
Capital Press staff writer
Steve Brown is based in Salem.