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Photo Synthesis

S.F. Water Front

April 23, 2006|Colin Westerbeck

1934

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"Taking Root: A Century of Migrant Workers in California" is on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Aug. 6.

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Jumping ship on the East Coast in 1928, Otto Hagel made his way to San Francisco by hitchhiking and riding the rods. Then, when his sweetheart from Germany, Hansel Mieth, joined him, they worked as pickers, following the fruit crop through California. Radicalized by this experience, they both began taking photographs to document the Depression here.

Back in San Francisco by 1934, Hagel became interested in labor conditions on the waterfront that would soon lead to a bloody strike. This photograph is of a shape-up, where men struggled to get slips of paper entitling them to a day's work as stevedores. It's likely that Hagel took it, though who took which pictures was somewhat murky during this period. Because he was an illegal immigrant--Mieth wasn't--he had to remain in the shadows.

In 1937, Mieth was offered a position at Life. At first she refused this "capitalistic magazine," as she called it. She relented, though, after being promised editorial freedom. In the 1940s, Hagel was given legal status that permitted them to work openly as a team. But in the 1950s, they again lost their livelihood after being investigated by the FBI and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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