I began researching Depression era photographer Dorothea Lange as a means to find out more about perceptions of California landscape. Trained in the interdisciplinary field of ecocriticism, a field of literary scholarship that reads literature in terms of its expression of environmental attitudes and practices, I was particularly interested in California farming as a site at which the environment intersected with the people on it. Manipulated landscapes are still a primary interest of mine, and I am interested in the means by which we have created an image of California’s landscape, including the legal and environmental practices which have affected the rivers, soil, lakes, and air of the state.
With Lange, I went in with the hypothesis that the photographs she took in California were more politically motivated than history had yet given her credit for. Because she was married to, and worked closely with, a labor economist from UC Berkeley, it made sense to me that she had an understanding of farming practices, labor policy and the social attitudes that encouraged labor exploitation during that time. That research threw me quickly into water policy, for the work of Lange’s husband, Paul Taylor, always insisted that small acreage farms, possibly only through limitations on subsidized water delivery, offered the only possible hope for an end to the successive waves of migrant labor on which the state had come to rely.
But researching Lange’s photography also showed me a subset of stories, a narrative of sorts, that highlights the changing social role of women during that decade, especially in domestic situations. Her assigned task —documenting conditions in a way that would increase support for camp programs—was often subordinated by this secondary story: the physical and mental challenges of homemaking and housekeeping in tents, shacks, and squatter’s camps. Thus, a great deal of my research has focused on the ways that literature, art, and history tell the story of women’s attempts to structure their lives, culturally and personally, during the Great Depression.