A Modern-Day Bay Area Poet Recreated the Journey of Legendary Photographer Dorothea Lange

“She inspired me as a model of persistence.” 

So says Tess Taylor, a poet in the Bay Area, who undertook the journey once travelled by Dorothea Lange, the extraordinary woman photographer.

Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, is Taylor’s work in conjunction with the sweeping retrospective of Lange’s work Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  

Lange documented migrant people—some coming to California for jobs, some leaving farms that had failed in the big act of climate change we now call the Dust Bowl. She also photographed Japanese internment.  

Dorothea LangeWords & Pictures, the first major MoMA exhibition of Lange’s in 50 years, brings iconic works from the collection together with less seen photographs—from early street photography to projects on criminal justice reform. (Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, The Museum of Modern Art)

Taylor on how she came to take the same paths that Lange had done in 1936-38:

“We are living through a new crisis of shelterlessness … 28,000 people are living without shelter in the Bay Area, in tents and trailers. I wondered how she might approach asking us to see the people around us now.  How are we to make sense of this crisis among our neighbors?”

While neither Lange’s photographs nor Taylor’s poems focus solely on women, the plight of women is evident throughout.

Lange is famous for her realistic Migrant Mother—but there are so many more faces.  

One of Taylor’s poems, “At the Women’s Shelter,” is about women fleeing domestic violence and waiting for partners they’ve been separated from on their travels:

What’s different now, you know, is fear—
Different people. The same problems.
Always women trying to get away.
Evictions, domestic violence.  Always true.
Hard on women now when rents are high.
Migrants come after they’re released

Someone has said that thinking about photographs without words is essentially impossible.  Lange herself said “All photographs—not only those that are so called ‘documentary’—can be fortified by words.”  

Taylor used Lange’s notes throughout to record her trip and what she was now seeing on her own.  This is, in a way, a never-ending story. 

“I was seeing analogs and constellations that repeat and erupt through time,” said Lange. “We face a new era of detention centers.  I thought it was fascinating to travel the literal ground she traveled and ask what’s there now.”

What was it like traveling the long roads of the state by car now?  

“Long, hot and exhausting- engrossing. I’d be gone for days, come home and collapse,” Taylor said, adding,  “These roads are much better then the ones Lange once travelled.  I was awed by how brave and strong she must have been.” 

Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures is on exhibition now through May 9, 2020 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

At the MoMA, on March 21—in conjunction with the exhibition Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures and the accompanying publication, Last West—California-based poets Tess Taylor, Brynn Saito and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo will read selections of their poetry focused on migrancy.

The reading will be followed by a Q&A about the poets’ process working together on this project, moderated by Sarah Meister, a curator in the MoMA’s Department of Photography and organizer of the exhibition. Books will be available for purchase and signing after the event.

More information can be found here.


Sheila Wickouski is an art and culture writer.