The Eye of the Beholder: Images of California by Dorothea Lange & Russell Lee

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1985


University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society


Two government photographers worked in California during the first and second Roosevelt administrations. Dorothea Lange created documentary images which have become the standard iconography of suffering during the Great Depression. Russell Lee, who photographed in California for the same agency five years later, had a different vision. Where Lange saw hurt and despair, Lee saw healing and hope. Lange combined art and politics to produce pictures that demanded change, while Lee, who shared Lange's politics, used his camera to record those things that were worth saving in the face of change. Although both photographers worked for the New Deal, differences in artistic temperament and changes during the few years which separated their work in California caused them to record distinctly different impressions of the state.

The New Deal photographic projects grew out of agricultural relief programs with particular importance for California, where three hundred thousand refugees from the Dust Bowl sought work and a new life. The Resettlement Administration (RA) was established in 1935 specifically to provide housing assistance to migrant farm laborers. After two years in administrative limbo as an independent agency, it was absorbed into the Agriculture Department in 1937 as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In addition to the personnel who administered the RA/FSA' s relief programs, Rexford Tugwell, Roosevelt's chief relief executive, appointed an "historical section" headed by Roy Emerson Stryker. Stryker, who had studied under Tugwell at Columbia University had also worked with Tugwell on American Economic Life, an economics textbook. His search for photographic illustrations for the book had introduced him to the pioneering social photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, as well as to the more recent work of Margaret Bourke-White. 1 As head of the historical section, Stryker developed a team of photographers whose work not only documented rural poverty but also provided the United States with its most indelible images of the Great Depression. It is for this, far more than for its actual relief work, that the RA/FSA remains in the popular memory today.