The photographs in Americans all date from Dorothea Lange’s tenure with the US Farm Security Administration (FSA). They record the migrant rural workers and refugees of late 1930s America, capturing their lives with a genuine pathos.
The collection includes Migrant Mother, the most famous of all Lange’s photographs, taken in 1936 and featuring a pea-picker and her children in Nipomo, California. “I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions,” Lange later recalled. “I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.”
Lange shot the photographs in Americans on a Graflex camera, creating negatives on 4x5 inch film. The simple black and white images – of abandoned cafes, families living in tents at the side of the road, or refugees’ cars loaded with possessions, making the journey west – were imbued with a startling naturalism. Lange pursued a low-key, empathetic approach to the photographs; she worked unobtrusively, waiting until a subject was comfortable with her presence before taking a shot. By working in this way, melding her experience of studio portraiture with a journalistic approach, Lange helped direct the nascent genre of reportage.