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Viewfinders Keepers: Images of Bygone Era Found in Attic

Prints attributed to Dorothea Lange, renowned chronicler of state's migrant workers in 1930s, turn up in Thousand Oaks.

May 31, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Gene Lore had no idea that the images of desperation tucked away in his Thousand Oaks attic could be so enriching.

There were photographs of pea pickers and cotton pickers, caved-in men with hung-down heads, women with worried eyes, children clinging to their skirts. Families stood in fields and sat by shacks, looking as worn out as the cars that had carried them from nowhere good to someplace worse.

Dating from the mid-1930s, the photographs were shot by Dorothea Lange, the renowned chronicler of migrant workers in California, experts say. If Lore's sister hadn't been poking through a cabinet stuffed with their father's old papers, the rare photos eventually would have wound up in the trash.

Now the collection, which could be worth thousands, may be sold to a major museum. And the mountain of letters, clippings and documents left behind by Lore's father, Elmer, a three-term state assemblyman who died in 1946, will be preserved for students of California history.

The 52 black-and-white photos were stashed in a file folder amid the assemblyman's memorabilia. In the last six decades, the collection had passed from Lore's mother to his older brother and then to him. It remained virtually untouched until his sister went through it in search of family history and came across the photos.

"I'd never heard of Dorothea Lange," said Lore, an 85-year-old retired surveyor. "I didn't know the photos were there and I was completely ignorant of them having any value at all."

A couple of years ago, Lore lent a few of the shots to a car-buff pal in Ventura who got a kick out of the Model Ts and other antique vehicles. Trying to get an idea of the photos' value, Lore's friend showed them around town. At a barbershop, they caught the eye of Frank Allison, a board member of Focus on the Masters, a nonprofit arts-education group founded by photographer Donna Granata.

When Granata saw the 8-by-10 prints, she recognized them as vintage photos, printed by the dozens shortly after the shots were made. On the back of many were lightly penciled captions. Almost all of them bore the stamp of FDR's Resettlement Administration, along with a reminder: "Kindly use the following photo credit: Lange."

"They were just extraordinary," she said. "I said, 'Please, don't handle these with your bare hands!' I gave him cotton gloves, an archive box, a whole crash course in archival procedure." The photos, which will be displayed this fall at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, were, in fact, relics.

Lange was among a handful of photographers who were paid by the government to chronicle the anguish of Midwestern farmers displaced by drought and dust. Many of her photos were used to illustrate government reports on the migrants' plight by her husband, Berkeley economist Paul Taylor. Others wound up in newspapers and magazines, tangible evidence of the squalid conditions that the New Deal aimed to correct.

One recent afternoon, Granata gingerly took the photos from their box and spread them on an office table. On some, the captions were as poignant as the images on the flip side. These words summed up the sad history of a worker who was pictured toting up his wages at a Marysville labor camp:

1927 -- made 7000 in cotton

1928 -- broke even

1929 -- went in hole

1930 -- still deeper

1931 -- lost everything

1932 -- hit the road

Granata, who was chosen by Lore to represent him in a sale, said she and her staff have spent the last two years researching the photos and conferring with Lange experts, and preparing to sell the full set. Granata said she has talked with a number of major institutions, which she declined to name. She also declined to estimate the collection's worth.

However, experts noted that the market for Lange photographs has boomed in recent years. In 1998, a vintage print she made herself of her most famous shot -- the haunting "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, Calif." -- was auctioned to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $244,500.

But photos of the kind found in Lore's attic were often printed by her assistants or government technicians. Most of them command $3,000 to $5,000 on the open market, said Mack Lee, a gallery owner in Winchester, Mass., who has dealt in Lange's work for two decades.

Drew Johnson, curator of photography at the Oakland Museum of California, has seen the Lore collection and was impressed.

"I knew instantly they were authentic," he said. "There were prints in there that were perfect matches for some in our archive."

With more than 25,000 negatives and 6,000 prints bequeathed to it after her death in 1965, the Oakland museum is the world's largest repository of Lange's work.

While the Thousand Oaks discovery held no surprises, "the excitement is just to find so many vintage prints," Johnson said. "And you couldn't ask for a better provenance."

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