I FIRST SAW Dorothea Lange's work years ago, in a book I bought when I was in college, and again later on in a course on the history of photography. Like everybody else, I knew her "Migrant Mother," probably the most famous image to come out of the Depression; I'd seen her early 1930s San Francisco pictures and the ones she made a few years later in California farm fields. No need to see them again, I figured. It was only when a friend and I found ourselves at loose ends on a Saturday afternoon that we ended up going down to the Minneapolis Institute of Art for a look.
We went to see history, something remote, but that wasn't what we found. I've spoken to only a handful of people who've seen the show in the week and a half since it opened, but every one of them has reported variations on the same reaction--an eerie sense of the contemporary lurking behind the pictures, especially those from the highways, fields, and roadsides of the 1930s. The resonance is shadowy, not exactly literal and not entirely metaphorical, either. It's in the starkness of the scenes, Lange's eye for cruel ironies ("Next Time Try the Train. Relax" says the roadside billboard in one photo; beneath it, two men trudge past holding everything they own), the way people carry themselves, the abiding sense of isolation they seem to carry with them.
All this makes the images familiar, uncomfortably modern, but there's something that makes them strange at the same time: You see the people's faces, and it's a shocking thing. There's the other, less well-known shot of the migrant mother, 32 and looking half again that old, with a baby attached to her breast and bottomless worry burned into her eyes and her mouth; there's the girl of maybe 9 or 10 who leans against a single strand of barbed wire with bags under her eyes and a look of the purest hate and resignation. (You may have seen it--it's the picture on the jacket of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina.) The impact of these faces is partly a testament to Lange. You never get the feeling that anyone she photographs is preening, withholding, imploring. But there's another reason these pictures shock, one so obvious it didn't occur to me until we walked out of the gallery and my friend said it out loud. "There's so much about those photographs that feels so modern," she said, "except that no one is taking pictures like that now. You don't see the faces of people in that kind of trouble."
You don't see the faces. A few days later, I thought of some news clips I'd kept in my files for years. The story broke one day in June 1988 when police went to a St. Paul house to check on a woman who had failed to show up for work. They discovered a home filled with garbage--33,000 pounds in all. Or, as one newspaper account put it, about 9,000 pounds more than the entire city had generated in celebrating the Twins' World Series victory the previous fall. The basement was piled full to within two feet of the ceiling. Some of the five rooms upstairs were piled four feet high with sacks of trash and shit.
It wasn't the first case of its kind, or the last. By December 1988, city officials were citing reports of "seven or eight" garbage-infested houses a month. But the extremity of this case caught the media's imagination, and over a month or so the story came out. By the time police happened to show up, the entire family--a husband and wife and their four children--was living in one bedroom. "Things just got out of hand about three years ago," the man told a reporter.
At one time he had worked for the St. Paul Parks Department. After being laid off, he said, he'd hurt his back. It wasn't clear whether he'd worked again. The woman was a licensed practical nurse; she kept her job, but it didn't pay the bills. First the water was shut off, then the garbage service. They began keeping the trash in the garage. Eventually it moved into the house. The kids would clean themselves up at a nearby service station, or carry water home; after the washer and drier disappeared, laundry was done at a laundromat. "I guess you kind of get to a point where you give up," the man told a Pioneer Press reporter a month later. "I'm having a hard time understanding how it did happen. But I remember feeling there wasn't anything I could do about it. When I went into the house, I just blanked the mess out of my mind."
In that he was hardly alone. Neighbors remarked upon how well-behaved the children seemed, though it was odd that they slept outside so much in the summertime. Yes, they noticed the smell--you couldn't miss it, and the city was aware of it too--but they assumed that it came from the yard. Something buried, perhaps. One neighbor had actually gone inside the house a couple of years earlier, but no one believed her account of what she saw there, and she never called authorities. The wife had family just a block away, but they were asked never to visit; her father assumed it was because his son-in-law didn't like him. Some of the children's teachers were concerned, but news accounts don't say what became of the reports they made.
It's hard not to see in this story an extreme version of what has become an everyday reality: Little by little, lives go quietly and privately awry. Unlike the Depression, the dislocations aren't massive and sudden; they're trickle-down from a thousand stories about "re-engineering" and "downsizing" and "welfare reform," and as such they don't register as a social fact. In most cases the stricken keep going through life's motions. You don't see the faces.
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