From time to time, I search through images on Shorpy.com, a photographic archive and blog with thousands of incredibly detailed images from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
The website is named in honor of a teenage coal miner who lived and worked 100 years ago named Shorpy Higginbotham. The image of Shorpy was created by Lewis Wickes Hine in 1910. It’s fitting that the site is named after a figure from the past who contributed to the growth of our country, but otherwise went unheralded.
In addition to serving as a type of historical archive, the site gives Shorpy, and thousands like him, a voice. Like so many others before us, Shorpy began earning a living long before he should have. He worked grueling hours at a dangerous job with no benefits, a situation that most of us can barely imagine.
Two images in particular caught my eye this week during my Shorpy browsing, both taken by chemist-turned-photographer, Russell Lee. Lee was a member of a team of photographers consisting of the likes of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.
The team was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the conditions of the rural poor in America in the 1930s and 1940s. The team leader said his job was to get out of the way and let the photographers do theirs.
In June 1939, Lee photographed a migrant worker and his wife outside their tent in a temporary work camp in Wagoner County, Oklahoma. Here’s the link if you want to go to Shorpy to view the image and read the caption. If not, here’s the image:
Here’s the other Russell Lee image and link:
The blurb on Shorpy calls the man a “veteran migrant worker,” but otherwise he and his wife are unnamed. The piece says that the man has followed the road in pursuit of work for 30 years. Lee asked the migrant worker where his home was. “It’s all over,” he said.
Instead of vagabonds, as they are called in the caption of the first image, it seems to me that they put down roots in a lot of places. Each time they moved on, they took a part of that place with them, maybe to remind them of where home really is.
Home is all over… I find comfort in that, especially as we prepare to sell our house, with no specific plans for another in the near future. In no way do I compare my situation with the migrant worker’s. I’ve got the luxury of working from home. Selling the house and moving on is a desire, not a need. I’m not following the work. I’m taking it with me.
I learned a lot this week from the 1939 migrant worker. He taught me that, in a way, he also worked from home. He and his wife never saw much fruit from a lifetime of labor, but they refused to quit. Because of that work ethic, and because of the visibility given to poor working conditions through photo-documentaries, my working conditions today are ideal.
Look at me. I’m working from home, no matter where I am. Home is all over.
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