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Explore Dorothea Lange’s lost highway with writer Allison Meier.

Toward Los Angeles, California by Dorothea Lange

Fine weather is for road trips. As we approach the season of four-wheeled weekend segues we’re reminded of the roadside imagery made by pioneering documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, whose humanizing photographs of Depression-era Americans opened minds and permanently influenced the art form. This Sunday would be her 124th birthday. To commemorate the occasion, we sought out some wisdom from writer and deep-diving art history intellect Allison C. Meier. You might have spotted the piece Meier penned for us on Eadweard Muybridge last month. She sure writes good words, and we feel awfully lucky to be able to share them with our audience. Below, peek at her insights on Lange’s lost highway, then head over the blog for the complete editorial. — Team 20x200

P.S. There are some Dorothea Lange editions included in the super spring sale we're running right now, along with work by a number of other art world legends. Save up to more than 50% off!  

In 1939, Dorothea Lange devoted a lot of time and attention to one particular stretch of California highway: US Route 99, and the migrants who traveled on it from harvest to harvest, job to job. Some drove vehicles heaped with all their possessions like homes turned inside out, with chairs, mattresses, cooking utensils, and clothes all tied in huge bundles. Others walked. The photographer’s Toward Los Angeles, California shows two migrant workers striding down the dusty highway, each carrying a bag. A billboard alongside suggests “Next Time Try the Train,” an advertisement intended for motorists that’s given a dark irony against the two walkers.

Lange took hundreds of photographs in the region that year. She’d started photographing the hardships of the Great Depression in 1933 in San Francisco and continued on assignment with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her tightly framed portraiture aimed to humanize the disparaged “Okies” and capture how the migrants maintained some sense of home and dignity even while living in the roadside camps and tent cities. She also paused to talk with them, to hear and transcribe their stories. As she said in a 1964 interview for the Archives of American Art:

[O]ften it's just sticking around and being there ... not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust; sitting down on the ground with people, letting the children look at your camera with their dirty, grimy little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you let them. Because you know that you will behave in a generous manner, you're very apt to receive it.

“Route 99” was one of the general captions Lange used to organize her colossal survey of this era. Under it, she documented the people—such as Migrant Worker on California Highway trudging on the road’s lonely shoulder—and the highway’s hand-painted signs and local amenities that reflected the constant movement of people on this corridor, including Cabins on US 99 awaiting their nightly guests, and Road House on US 99 with its façade painted with the tantalizing promise of steak dinners, bacon and eggs, chili beans, and milkshakes.

When it was established in 1926, U.S. Route 99 became the vital vein connecting the West Coast of the United States from the Mexico to Canada borders. Nicknamed the Golden State Highway and California’s Main Street, it was an early member of the United States Numbered Highway System which anticipated a new century of the car. Piecing together smaller local roads into one highway, U.S. Route 99 soon bustled with Model Ts and pit stops drawn to the new thoroughfare.

Just a decade later, travelers were as likely to see people walking as driving on this long stretch of road. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl spurred numerous individuals and families westward. After hauling across Route 66 from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri, they continued on to Route 99 to search for work. They had left behind farms where crops would no longer grow in the parched soil, which regularly flew into their houses in storms that sometimes blotted out the sun. In 1939's The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck chronicled the Joad family’s journey on Route 99 and the slim hope it offered:

[Tom] drove through the side streets and cleared the town, and then he crossed back. At an intersection the sign said "99." He turned south on it. "Well, anyways they never shoved us north," he said. "We still go where we want, even if we got to crawl for the right." The dim lights felt along the broad black highway ahead.

You can no longer drive the West Coast on U.S. Route 99. Decommissioned in the 1960s and broken apart, supplanted by the new Interstate 5, it survives only in fragments absorbed into towns or less frequented roads alongside the new asphalt. Each of Lange’s thoughtful images recall this lost highway, and more importantly draw our attention to the daily lives of migrants. Today, when migrants remain a crucial part of this country’s economy, these photographs reflect Lange’s own tireless work to visualize their experiences of displacement, and her commitment to empathy in portraying them.

—Allison C. Meier


About Our Guest Author
Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer on art, history, and culture. Previously she was senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

Collect a Dorothea Lange edition

Cabins on US 99
by Dorothea Lange

Road House on US 99 
by Dorothea Lange

I Am an American, Oakland, CA, March 1942
by Dorothea Lange

Small Farm of California, Contra Costa County
by Dorothea Lange