Dorothea Lange's Moving Photographs of The Depression Era

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Rebecca Fulleylove

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco (1933) by Dorothea LangeSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Meet the woman who showed America the consequences of the Great Depression

Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist. Though she had never used or owned a camera, Lange was adamant she would become a photographer when she graduated high school in the early 1900s.

Having studied photography at Columbia University in New York City, the photographer found herself settled in San Francisco and worked as a photo finisher at a photographic supply shop. Here she met an investor who made it possible for Lange to open her own portrait studio in the city, which supported her and her family for the next 15 years.

The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s caused Lange to turn her camera lens from the studio to the street. She embarked on studies of unemployed and homeless people, and caught the attention of the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), which went on to be known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and they employed her as a photographer in 1935. The department was set up to combat American rural poverty and Lange’s work humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography.

Here we showcase the images that established Lange as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

1. White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933

This was one of Lange’s first attempts at street photography and was taken near her studio in San Francisco. The image depicts a lone man facing away from the crowd in front of a soup kitchen run by a widow known as White Angel. The angel was Lois Jordan, a working-class woman who relied only on unsolicited donations to run the breadline. Seeing the suffering directly was partly what drove Lange to leave her studio and use her camera as a tool for social change.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

2. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

This image became the most iconic picture of the Depression. Lange photographs migrant pea-picker, 32-year-old Florence Thompson with three of her children. The farm crops had frozen and there was no work for the homeless pickers, so Thompson sold the tires from her car to buy food, which was supplemented with birds killed by her children.

In this poignant image where Thompson looks through the camera, Lange demonstrates her skill of being able to see her subjects both as individuals and as representatives for bigger issues. Migrant Mother became a symbol of strife and fortitude to millions of other Americans at the time. After this image was taken Lange informed the authorities of the plight of the pea-picking camp and they sent 20,000 pounds of food.

Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California (1936, printed 1976) by Dorothea LangeThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

3. Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma, 1936

Lange’s image highlights one of many children who were displaced and relocated during the economic Depression and drought in 1936. Within the image, the child’s small frame, dirty face and ragged clothes help towards telling the story, but the determined stare of Lange’s subject is what draws the viewer in.

When setting up a shot, Lange often moved slowly, fiddling with her camera and the lighting until her subjects relaxed. This care and consideration led to thousands of images that felt honest and allowed viewers to connect to her images on a deeper level.

Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936) by Dorothea LangeGeorge Eastman Museum

Damaged Child, Shacktown, Oklahoma by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of George Eastman Museum) 

4. Ex-Slave With Long Memory, Alabama, 1937

Here we see an elderly African-American woman, standing outside her house in Alabama. The title alludes to this woman’s experience of being a slave when she was child and the memories that have stayed with her since.

Though President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which changed the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the South from slave to free, it actually wasn’t until 1865 that slavery across all of America was abolished, which took the form of the 13th Amendment. The law stated: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States".

Ex-Slave with Long Memory, Alabama (1937) by Dorothea LangeGeorge Eastman Museum

Ex-Slave With Long Memory, Alabama by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of George Eastman Museum)

5. Six Tenant Farmers Without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas, 1937

This image depicts 6 young farmers who lost their livelihood when tractor cultivation came to the land they had worked for years. At the time Lange took the photograph, all were living on welfare and, because they could not afford the Texas poll tax, were no longer able to vote. The photograph epitomizes the best of Lange’s work where she conveys compassion without pity, and reportage without exaggeration or melodrama.

Six Tenant Farmers without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas (May 1937, printed 1976) by Dorothea LangeThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Six Tenant Farmers Without Farms by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

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