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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Disaster and Government Response: The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal #8047 Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California

#8047 The black and white photograph depicts a Mexican migrant family in front of a makeshift shelter in California. The photograph includes the father, young child, and an infant. The father leans on a car parked in front of the family home.


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.


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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.

Make Inferences

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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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


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