The following essay appears in Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, a catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art.
This woman seems to have been standing in the meadow forever, with it and of it, welcoming us all, an earthbound archangel of the topsoil. You could imagine that below her housedress her feet have taken root or her torso has become a tree trunk, and the way she smiles and reaches out that right hand seems like the most generous way to say that this place is hers.
Everything in the picture affirms a sense of stability. The square photograph is bisected horizontally by the straight line where the flowering meadow joins the bare hill on the right and the tree-covered hill on the left that rise up from either side of her like wings. That line is even with her bosom, and her outstretched hand seems almost to rest on it. Her body is the vertical axis accentuated by the inset panel of her dress. It could seem like a moment in cyclical time, the time of the seasons and the years coming one after another, of the eternal return, and seen in isolation that might be all you’d know: an older woman with a radiantly kind face reaches out welcomingly from the heart of an idyllic California landscape.
As is so often the case with Dorothea Lange’s photographs and maybe with nearly all photographs, the meaning of the image comes in part from beyond the frame. Captions constitute the immediate context, and series and sequences or longer texts the larger one. When Lange published the portrait, it was the opening image inside a 1960 special issue of Aperture magazine titled “Death of a Valley.” (The project had been commissioned a few years earlier by Life, which then declined to publish it.) The woman smiling in the midst of pastoral calm was saying hello to the viewer; she and Lange and Pirkle Jones, who worked with Lange on the documentary project, were saying goodbye to the Berryessa Valley and the town of Monticello.
The text declares, “Demands for more water caused the death of the Berryessa Valley. It disappeared 125 feet deep behind a dam in order to store water for the bigger valleys below and to provide industrial water for the expanding cities.” Then comes the photograph here, on a right-hand page, with, on the left side, “It was a place of cattle and horses, of pears and grapes, alfalfa and grain. It had never known a crop failure … And the valley held generations in its hand.”
That last line all but makes this woman with her outstretched hand the valley itself. And then come the increasingly disturbing photographs as this idyll is wrecked, scraped, burned, and drowned. This was the small valley just east of the famous Napa Valley—sheltered, fertile, warm, doomed to be dammed to hold water for bigger agricultural regions to the south and east. A few pages later, a house is being moved and a farm auction is being held. The men and children in summer clothes are better dressed, more substantial, than the famous Lange subjects from earlier projects, but this is still about displacement.
In 1937, Lange photographed six displaced tenant farmers in Goodlet, Texas, strong men with grim faces standing on bare earth in front of an unpainted wooden structure. On March 27, 1942, in San Jose, California, she photographed a Japanese American farmer sitting on what appears to be a porch: “A young celery grower … who has just completed arrangements for leasing his farm during evacuation.” His sisters flank him in the background, and the white man who’s presumably worked out the arrangements with him looms. The vanishing point architecture boxes him in, and one of his sisters in the background leans against a mattress tipped up against the wall. They’re both uprooted and trapped, the composition says.
Sometimes her uprooted people landed well—the black shipyard workers of Richmond, California, were often escaping sharecropping in the south, but sometimes they had not landed, and perhaps some of us from that era of uprooting never will. In our current era of uprooting, thanks to economic policies that have created mass homelessness again in California and crushing debt across the nation, Lange’s images seem immediate, urgent, thorny again, questions that demand answers.
There’s no such ominousness inside the photograph here of the woman in the Berryessa Valley, but starting with Lange’s White Angel Breadline photograph of 1933, displacement was one of her perennial themes. The Berryessa people weren’t displaced by ecological failure, poverty, or racism, though: they were ousted by development. Further along in “Death of a Valley” comes an image showing two old family photographs lying on a dusty wooden floor in, the caption tells us, an otherwise empty, abandoned house. Then come the exhumed graves and the giant oak tree toppled, the fires, the famous frightened horse—a white horse moving across dusty, distressed ground: “Just raw and mutilated earth remained.”
Moving from image to image in “Death of a Valley,” you come back and see that this sturdy countrywoman is a rustic western version of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. “The angel would like to stay … and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.” This time the violence is called progress and the industrialization of agriculture and the control of nature. This time the woman smiles warmly from a valley floor that has been underwater ever since.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books, including A Paradise Built in Hell, Men Explain Things to Me, and, most recently, Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir. She lives in San Francisco.
Excerpt from Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.