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Dorothea Lange: 'Daring To Look'

There's a black-and-white photograph that is one of the most enduring images of the Great Depression. Titled "Migrant Mother," it shows a poor farmworker. Her hand touches her face in worry, and two ragged children cling to her shoulders. A baby is wrapped in cloth in the mother's lap.

The image of Florence Owens Thompson and her children taken in 1936 in Nipomo, Calif., is one of the most reproduced photographs in history. The photographer behind this iconic work was Dorothea Lange.

"Migrant Mother" anchors a new book about Lange's Depression-era chronicles. Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field, written by MIT professor Anne Whiston Spirn, documents hundreds of Lange's photos and the descriptions she wrote of them.

Lange was part of the legendary stable of photographers at the Farm Security Administration during the New Deal. They were sent out to document conditions nationwide and help build public support for government improvement programs. As the 1930s wore on, Lange documented those programs that succeeded — and those that didn't.

And, as Spirn tells NPR's Andrea Seabrook, "She set the standard."

The book zooms in on a single year, 1939, when Lange was at her most productive — and her most feisty. She took thousands of photos that year and wrote simple but eloquent text blocks she called "field reports." But she was fired after a series of conflicts with the FSA's photo chief, Roy Stryker.

Lange died of cancer in 1965. The book's title was inspired by a comment she made late in her career: "No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually. ... I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves."

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