Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum
Focus in on This Photo: Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California
Date: March 1937
Location: Imperial Valley, California
Photographer: Dorothea Lange
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b38632
Man holding baby, behind automobile, alongside of shack.
The back of a car is at left, some type of shelter is in the center, and a man is prominent in the middle ground next to the car. The foreground is dirt; the background is mostly blank sky.
The scene appears hot and dusty. There are no clouds in the sky, and the ground appears parched. There appears to be little distinction between the ground of the roadside upon which the house is built, and the cultivated field beyond.
A young man poses with his infant child outside of a tiny makeshift house. His clothing and the muddy boots placed on the bench adjacent to the door of the house suggest he has prepared for this portrait.
The chimney indicates the house has some heat, but the darkened interior indicates there is no electricity. Buckets around the home are probably for washing, as it does not appear there is running water either. The house appears to be a made of a wooden frame, with cardboard used for the walls and for insulation.
The house is not that large: the man seems to be taller than the door frame.
Just inside the door, a young girl looks out at the viewer.
Build on Your Observations
Lange’s composition focuses the viewer’s attention on the family.
The inclusion of the area to the left of the cabin allows the viewer to understand something of the conditions in which this family worked. From the title, we know the field is frozen, and the photograph visually enforces this fact.
The heavy shadow in the doorway is such that it is easy to overlook the young girl looking out.
The tones of the photograph play an important role here: dark areas (the object on the far left, the doorway, and the man’s pants) serve to distribute graphic emphasis throughout the composition.
Even though the photograph focuses on this family, the stretch of dry land in the background indicates the poor agricultural conditions in this region, ironically called the Imperial Valley. The caption tells us this family may not be here for long.
The conditions in which this man lives are obviously desperate, but in this photograph he presents himself neatly to the camera. He rests his foot on the bumper of a car, conveying his pride in this possession. He holds his child; including the infant in the portrait also suggests he is proud of his status as a parent.
Formulate Further Questions
What was the purpose of this photograph?
Lange’s title tells us the photograph was made in the Imperial Valley. Why did workers come to this particular region?
During the Depression, many workers came from Mexico in search of work. What was their experience like?
Lange made other images of migratory workers from Mexico and from the United States living in the Imperial Valley. What more can her photographs tell us about these people and the conditions in which they lived and worked?
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3.4 Focus in on this Photo: Comparison of unsprayed conventional cotton crop and Bt GM cotton in Australia
3.5 Focus in on This Photo: Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California
Program 1 A Closer Look (video)
This introduction to the course models the process of analyzing photographs with teachers and students. Photography historian Makeda Best discusses the Focus In method with teachers, and educator Julie Keefe employs the method with students at a photography exhibit on "light and dark." Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan discusses how she carefully selects a set of photographs to tell a larger story.
Program 2 Witness (video)
Photographs bear witness to world events and help us to learn more about people, places, and situations -- historical and present day. Middle school teacher Donald Rose guides students in analyzing photos from school integration movements of the 1960s. Documentary film producer Ken Burns weaves photographs into historical narratives to bring the past to life. Photojournalist Louie Palu's photos take us deep into mines and war zones, and engage us with the individuals who take on those tasks.
Program 3 Lives (video)
Lives explores the story of human resilience and perseverance. Middle school teacher Donald Rose uses the Migrant Mother photos by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to help students understand what elements a photographer chooses to focus on to create the greatest impact. Historian Linda Gordon, biographer of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange reveals Lange's role in engaging Americans in the plight of those who were most devastated. New Orleans documentary photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick talk about the transformation of their photographs after Hurricane Katrina and working with young photographers to preserve the city's cultural heritage.
video 4 Evidence (video)
An image can show us otherwise invisible processes, previously undiscovered life forms, and dramatic change over time. High school teacher Rima Givot engages her students with highly magnified photos of mouse muscle to study genetically modified organisms. Scientist and photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel demonstrates the fascinating process of creating photographs of the microscopic world. Environmental photographer Gary Braasch reports on his worldwide travels to document the state of the planet through repeat photography.
Program 5 Story (video)
Every photograph tells a story: of struggle, of beauty, of community and culture. Social studies teacher Kim Kanof uses photos from the Protests and Politics collection to teach about protests around in the world in 1968. National Geographic photo editor Pamela Chen details the collaborative process of creating photo-based feature stories with design director David Whitmore. Iowa photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier discusses his work documenting the residents and images of marginalized communities across the United States.