1938. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. “Unemployment benefits aid begins. Line of men inside a division office of the State Employment Service office at San Francisco, California, waiting to register for benefits on one of the first days the office was open. They will receive from six to fifteen dollars per week for up to sixteen weeks. Coincidental with the announcement that the federal unemployment census showed close to ten million persons out of work, twenty-two states begin paying unemployment compensation”
More than 5,000 people died from the heatwave of 1936. It was the hottest summer on record. Those crops that hadn’t withered in the first half of the decade now failed. People collapsed from exhaustion in their homes. The summer of 1936 marked the most desperate point of a four year drought and a decade long economic depression that displaced 2.5 million people. This time came to be known as the Dust Bowl.
Unseasonable heavy rain in the years preceding 1930 convinced farmers that aggressive ploughing was acceptable, when in reality a very thin topsoil was only protected by a thin layer of grass. When precipitation did not materialize, the exposed soil quickly dried. High winds, which were not uncommon, were now able to pick up millions of pounds of dried soil and blow it in huge rolling black clouds. Towns were abandoned. The largest exodus of Americans occurred in the 1930’s as a result of this agricultural disaster. Poor and hungry, whole families traveled west for work.
The high-resolution photographs of migrant workers in this series show the men, women and children who lived during this troubled time. Among others, Dororthea Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the Dust Bowl. During this time, she created some of her most iconic images.
Out of a collection of thousands of photographs from the Library of Congress, the following portraits have been chosen for their emotion and technical quality.