Highway West / Lange
© Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland
Highway to the West/U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico
Dorothea Lange
American, 1938, print about 1965
Gelatin silver print
7 3/8 x 9 3/8 in.
Questions for Teaching

• List everything you see in this picture.

• What time of day is shown here? Can you tell the season?

• Why do you think Lange did not include any people in this photograph?

• What is the mood of this scene? How might you feel if you were driving down this road?

• Why do you think people might have driven down this road during the Depression, when Lange photographed it? How do you think they felt?

• Have you ever driven on a road like this? What was the trip like?

• Find Highway 54 on a map. Which part is pictured here?

• How would a journey down this road seem different if the path curved and the surrounding vegetation were lush?

Background Information

Lange's subject in this photograph is the road, specifically, the seemingly endless Highway 54 as it cuts through the vast New Mexican desert. The road dominates her vision of the southwestern landscape—the land flanking the road has only dry patches of grass and small shrubs, and the sky is empty. Although a road suggests a driver and passengers traveling by car, no people are seen in this picture. Nonetheless, because Lange must have been standing on the road to take this picture, we have a sense of traveling on the road ourselves.

America developed a "road culture" in the 1930s. The era's most talented balladeer, Woody Guthrie, wrote song after song about this "hard traveling," including "Going Down the Road," "I Ain't Got No Home," "Lonesome Soul Blues," and his ode to Highway 66, "Will Rogers Highway." In the novel The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck described the significance of the highway he called "the main migrant road": "66 is the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there."