Although her San Francisco portrait studio catering to affluent was still doing well, Lange embarked on her career as a pioneering documentary photographer in the 1930s as she began to observe and depict the deterorating effects of the Great Depression in her adopted hometown. That led to her getting a job with federal Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration) documenting the plight of migrant workers and displaced farm families.
"As more and more people were coming into the state, not all Californians wanted those people in the state. They were concerned about the burden on the school systems, the infrastructure. They were worried about crime - arguments that we hear today about various groups. ... So, her assignment was to go out and document the people, because it's one thing for people to see headlines and statistics. It's another when you're confronted with this little girl from Oklahoma," Roblin said, indicating a haunting 1936 portrait titled "Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma."
But Lange is best known for "Migrant Mother," her iconic portrait of Oklahoman Florence Thompson, who was stranded at a pea-pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, with car trouble when a road-weary Lange stopped there to take some photos.
"Florence normally wasn't there, Dorothea almost wasn't there, and yet they intersect. It was a brief meeting; it was outside the norm, actually, for Dorothea. She normally asked quite a few questions of the subjects, and with Florence, she didn't. She didn't record her name, she just noted that she was 32, widowed and had seven children," Roblin said. "It troubled her in later years that 'Migrant Mother' became such an iconic image because she felt that people lost Florence. ... At the same time, Florence thought that Dorothea Lange was making money every time the image was being used, which wasn't the case since she was working for the government. ... So, it's interesting that this image is so complex ... and then you learn about the background of it, it becomes even more complex."
In conjunction with the Lange exhibit, the Tulsa-based Woody Guthrie Center has loaned the National Cowboy Museum its virtual-reality "The Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Experience," which provides a multisensory, first-person account of April 14, 1935, the day of dust storms now known as Black Sunday.
"(We) wanted to find a way to relate the Dust Bowl to children having the exhibit here ... and they were so kind," said Diana Fields, the museum's senior director of education and programming. "Steelehouse (Productions), who created the experience, and the Woody Guthrie Center, in celebration the 80th anniversary (of 'This Land Is Your Land'), lent it to us, which is very exciting. It really does help, especially for kids who don't know what it is."
The VR experience is offered through Feb. 28 in the museum's Prosperity Junction replica turn-of-the-twentieth-century cattle town.
"It's a shame that Dorothea Lange's name is not as recognized as John Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie - because it should be. She humanized the Dust Bowl and Depression in a way that novels and songs couldn't ... and together they do sort of form this group that shapes and influences what we think of that era. I think a lot of people when they think of the Depression or the Dust Bowl, the image of 'Migrant Mother' comes to mind - or 'Grapes of Wrath' or 'This Land Is Your Land,'" Roblin said.