It Was Never / Lange
© Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland
Richmond, California/It Was Never Like This Back Home
Dorothea Lange
American, about 1943
Gelatin silver print
9 3/4 x 7 3/4 in.
Questions for Teaching

• can you say about the woman in this picture?

• Where was Lange standing when she took this photograph?

• How does the low vantage point affect your impression of this woman?

• How would you describe the expression on her face?

• How would you describe this woman's life? What do you see in the picture that gives you clues about it?

• Why do you think she is wearing a dressy fur coat in the middle of a sunny day?

• How would you explain the title of this picture, It Was Never Like This Back Home?

• Why do you think that women were suddenly welcomed into the work force in the 1940s?

• What might it have felt like to go from being a homemaker to working in a wartime shipyard?

Background Information

Lange and her friend of many years, photographer Ansel Adams, were hired by Fortune magazine to document a twenty-four-hour cycle in the life of Richmond, California's Kaiser shipyard. The woman pictured here was one of the many newcomers to this town in the 1940s. Richmond saw astonishingly rapid growth during World War II as Kaiser built 727 ships. By 1944, the shipyard employed almost 100,000 workers. Since it was active round the clock in order to build ships as rapidly as possible, many businesses in Richmond stayed open twenty-four hours a day to meet the needs of off-shift defense workers. This woman may well have worked a swing or night shift and was taking an opportunity to dress up in her jewelry and evening furs for a special outing during her free time in the middle of a sunny day. Seen from a low vantage point, she stands proudly in front of a café. During the war, thousands of women joined the work force for the first time, often earning the same wages paid to men; perhaps this circumstance, too, underlies her happy and confident gaze.

This casual portrait does not betray the racial tensions that troubled Richmond at the time the picture was made. The town was undergoing a sudden enormous increase in its population of African-American residents, many of whom had abandoned the southern United States and its sharecropping system. They received equal pay, but the unions blocked them, the supervisors resisted promoting them (a problem shared by female shipyard workers of all races), and the local white people—many of them Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s—did not understand them.