About the Work of Art:

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)
Woman of the High Plains “If You Die, You’re Dead–That’s All.” Texas Panhandle, 1938
Gelatin silver print, 1960s
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
P1965.172.8

 

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), Woman of the High Plains “If You Die, You’re Dead–That’s All.” Texas Panhandle, 1938, gelatin silver print, 1960s, © The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, P1965.172.8

 

 

 

 

This expressive photograph captures the weary determination of Great Plains women who stubbornly battled through one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever endured—the dust bowl of the 1930s. Lange originally created the image as part of her extensive documentation of rural, depression-era America for the federal government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA). She liked the photograph so much that she added it to an evocative series of fifteen portraits of farm women, paired with shots of their respective environments, in a book called The American Country Woman (1967), designed to praise “women of the American soil,” whom Lange called “the roots of our country.”

The woman portrayed is Nettie Featherston, a migrant laborer’s wife and mother of three. Lange took the picture in the Texas Panhandle to document for the FSA farmland and families devastated by drought and dust storms. The photograph’s title comes from a much larger caption recording a conversation between Lange and Featherston, when the latter woman said,

We made good money pullin’ bolls [cotton], when we could pull. But we’ve had no work since March. When we miss, we set and eat just the same. The worst thing we did was when we sold the car, but we had to sell it to eat, and now we can’t get away from here. We’d like to starve if it hadn’t been for what my sister in Enid sent me. When it snowed last April we had to burn beans to keep warm. You can’t get no relief here until you’ve lived here a year. This county’s a hard county. They won’t help bury you here. If you die, you’re dead, that’s all.

Reading Nettie Featherston’s words and looking at her photograph, we find a woman tested to the limits of endurance. Her family has been on the verge of starvation, and work is scarce. She is wearing a dress made out of a rough sack, her face is careworn, her hair is uncombed, and her hand is on her forehead—a gesture of frustration and grief. Her mouth is set in a tight line, perhaps to keep herself from crying. Viewers cannot see Nettie’s eyes, and eyes are usually key elements in a portrait. But do viewers need to see her eyes? What more would her eyes tell viewers about her desperation than can already be learned from her body language? Nettie is the antithesis of the “perfect woman” epitomized by fashion models and movie stars who were avidly portrayed in the popular press of the 1930s.

The elements of the photograph are quite simple: a central figure, a strip of land, and a vast sky. The land and the sky are slightly blurred, but the central figure of the woman is razor sharp. Nothing in the background detracts the viewer from Nettie’s intense expression and tortured stance. By photographing Nettie from a low camera angle, Lange has ennobled her, creating a monumental figure that dwarfs both land and sky. Her story is an age-old one of a human being's surviving in spite of the odds. Nettie went on to live a long life, and at eighty–one she told an interviewer:

I never much thought about living this long. I just didn’t think we’d survive. If you want to know something, we’re not living much better now than we did then—as high as everything is.


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