Yeso is a small (7 people) ex railroad stop and repair yard on U.S. Highway 60 in east Central New Mexico.
It is all but abandoned.
It is silent and vast and ruined and worth stopping for, for the silence alone.
When I went to pack up my gear and head east to Portales, I found that my polarizing filter had disappeared. ¡Desesparado! After a half hour of searching for it I’d had enough and screamed in frustration. A block away, seven people came out of the one occupied house left in Yeso.
They constituted the entire population of the town.
Embarrassed, I realized that I was disturbing the peace.
I left, honored the silence, was humbled and slinked away (Polarizerless).
Just east of El Paso,on the edge of town, about 20 miles from downtown, not far from the Rio Grande river that separates the United States from Mexico, there’s only two roads out of town. One is Interstate 10 and the other is the old main highway, U.S. 80, a road that was the main southern link between San Augustine, Florida and San Diego, California.
Just outside of El Paso, the two great roads divide, I10 shooting straight east, like an arrow. U.S. 80 turns south and follows the river until it turn east at Esparanza and then wiggles on, ambling through Texas, heading to the bayous of Louisiana.
The road, now part of El Paso’s east side thins out, about 30 miles from El Paso’s central downtown, then dwindles into Fabens, a farm town, the last town of West Texas.
found living with his family by the side of the road
near Raymondsville, Texas, in 1937, were called
bush-hogs.” Photo by Carl Mydans
Narrative by Bruce Berman
Almost always, when photo researchers and academic scholars refer to a Dorothea Lange photograph with people, they mention the “body language” that Lange so brilliantly captured. Usually they mention that Lange had Polio when she was a child and attribute this occurrence to her ability to “read” her subject’s body language.
This is puzzling to most aficianados of good photography, especially photographers themselves.
What good photo reportage doesn’t recognize their subject’s “body language?”
Further, as any photographer knows, most if not all photographers who work in the world of photographing strangers, use their own body language as a sort of introduction card. How else do you “break the ice?”
came to work in the fruit and vegetable harvests.”
Coachella Valley, California,
by Dorothea Lange, 1937
Dorothea Lange, as always, was interested in more than the facts of a situation. She wanted intimacy with “the other.” This man, obviously wary, is relaxed enough to put up his foot, a sure sign of trust. The captioning of the photo -hers- speaks volumes. He had had a station in life, even though it was rented. Now he only had his truck, his labor, his -and his family (background in the shadows)- and his footlocker full belongings.
Daragh Vaughn from Dublin Ireland at McDonald’s in Truth or Consequences, NM. He had had surgery for a genetic deformity. He already had the same surgery on his other hand. “To top that,” he says in his Irish brogue, “I’m a piano player!”
Jack Delano, was one of the group of photographers who fanned out throughout the United States in the 1930’s and 40’s on behalf of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Delano was not as well known as the other F.S.A. photographers, who included Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee. Mr. Delano created images of people and places of surpassing elegance and empathy. Certain of his beautifully detailed, crisp black-and-white prints show the Evans influence, but his work also had the verve and deep insight of Lange and the technical curiosity and skill of Lee.
When Russell Lee and the other FSA photographers set off into America in the 1930s their social concern wasn’t hidden and, in fact, Roy Stryker, the Director and Editor of the of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) Historical branch, encouraged his shooters to find various minority groups and show their life style and their condition in our society. He wanted “full disclosure,” for the good and the bad but he he wanted these groups to be shown as part of the “American family.” Although the FSA’s mission was to show rural conditions in the environmentally and economically challenged Depression era, he was aware of what the impact of these photos would be. In effect, the FSA was part of the ongoing and increasing movement for justice and Civil Rights. How these groups were visually described and labeled, in an era before the confusion of politicaly correct labeling had become an issue, might not have been how these groups labeled themselves.
From St. Louis to Wall Street to hangin’ with Hemingway and, finally, to the Farm Security Adminsitration, Walker Evans methodically fused reportage with the art esthetic.
Here’s a short video of the great Walker Evans.
Dorothea Lange not only photographed the people who were suffering the disaster of the Depression, she got to know them.
Her captions, written and sent to Roy Stryker at the FSA (either with her undeveloped film -which was rare- or with her developed film (she was the only FSA shooter allowed to do so) often were mini Short Stories.
In the photograph above, for example, in 39 words Lange hits four of the five “5Ws and the H” that are the staple of good journalistic writing. The “How” is obvious: California by car.
Lange’s intimacy was a keystone of her work. The relaxed body language of the migrant father, the careful posing of six people (never easy and especially so with young children), the near “offering” of the baby to the photographer, a metaphorical gesture that Lange was undoubtedly aware of, all indicate a more than momentary photo shoot. She was engaged and she, like any good photographer, was dropping the barrier between subjects and “official person.” Her work indicated familiarity and, to a degree, intimacy.
This giant roadrunner is on Interstate 10, west of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In Russell Lee’s day this was highway U.S. 70/80. Lee traveled in a 1930’s Ford, often with his wife Jean. A photographer on assignment today can leave, for example, Houston, in the morning, fly to El Paso, rent a car, drive out toe area where this spot is, photograph his job, transmit it from his laptop and Mobile Hot Spot, stop for, say some great enchiladas in Las Cruces on the reverse trip, get on the plane and be in Houston by mid evening.
For Lee, getting to this spot, between Deming and and Las Cruces, leaving from, say, his last stop, (perhaps, El Paso, fifty miles away) would take a full day. Top speed limits in the 1930s were 45 to 50 mph . Speed limit signs, in the U.S. were not legally required until the mid 1920s.
There weren’t any Interstate Highways when FSA and Russell Lee worked America in the 1930s. The “Eisenhower Highway” as the Interstates were called, made travel fast and removed from the towns it bypassed, the very places where the FSA shooters did their best work.
Would they have plyed these highways like they plyed the two lane (and three lane) roads of their time?
They would have flown to a “hub,” rented a car for $75/day, stayed at a $65-100/night motel and used up their $50/day per diem as they worked to show the outstanding results of the government programs that have now bloated into a national way of life and debt.
Seriously, would Lee and Lange, Walker, Rothstein, and Delano have been able to do the work they did in jet set mode?
Construction on the the Eddy County, New Mexico Courthouse was begun in 1891. Up to $30,000 was allotted for its construction. The brands of cattle ranches from the region were etched around the west doors in 1940 and have been maintained there since.
This is not a pickup from Russell Lee’s FSA era. It’s a ’51-’54 “Jimmy.”
Lee was still shooting. He had completed his work on the The Study Of The Spanish Speaking People Of Texas and had settled into his life in Austin, teaching at the Art Department at UT.
He still was shooting and traveling the highways on assignment.
This truck and the two lane highway along it is of the era when there weren’t Interstate Highways (1955), massive franchises, massive government and plastic culture. Not long after this came “cool.” America wasn’t cool before the mid fifties. All the way back, through the Depression, back to the teens, America was agrarian, quieter, smellier, simpler. And tougher.
Lee -and the FSA-ers- not only documented the Depression in the 30s and its affect on agriculture, but he and they photographed the end of a major era, the second era of the automobile (the first being horseless carriage and horse trails). America was about to enter the third era (the Interstate, the jet, wide spread fashion, work at desks).
Relic #91 is one more gravestone along the highway of the second era.
Am I “waxing” nostalgic?
Of course. This whole project has waxed nostalgic!
Here’s the weird thing: there really are (at least) two Americas out there (the phrase came from someone who isn’t either and will, hopefully just fade away). And this has been going on for a long time.
What was the reason the W.P.A. created the Farm Security Admibnistration which created the “Historical Section,” that employed Lee, Lange, Evans, Rothstein, Parks, and the whole rest of the FSA shooters?
“To explain to the cities the need for the New Deal programs in rural America,” as Nancy Woods in In This Proud Land says.
And here we have 2012. It’s not exactly the same mix of “rural v. urban,” but it is some kind of mix between the equitied and the struggling and the struggling are out there, and they think they are living the right way and the other America, the one now represented by Hope and Change thinks the other half are a bunch of rubes, or, as one famous non rube said, “They’re clinging to their guns and religion.”
Well yeah and always will.
The question is, Lost American, what are you clinging to?