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Documenting the Great Depression

Dorothea Lange, “photographer of democracy,” brought the plight of migrant workers “to public attention.”

Carrots. Hops. Peas. Potatoes. Tobacco.

From Oregon to California, Virginia to Georgia, and points in-between … during the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange traveled the country. Her job: documenting migratory farm labor for the Farm Security Administration.

Her “photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.”

You know of Lange, probably, even if you don’t know her name.

Lange photo: migrant mother
“Migrant Mother.” Destitute pea pickers in Nipomo, California. Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven children, age 32. Dorothea Lange (March 1936). LOC.

Hers is perhaps the most famous image of migrant workers during the Depression.

Lange took seven exposures of the woman, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, with various combinations of her seven children. One of these exposures, with its tight focus on Thompson’s face, transformed her into a Madonna-like figure and became an icon of the Great Depression and one of the most famous photographs in history. This image was first exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1940, under the title Pea Picker Family, California; by 1966, when the Museum held a retrospective of Lange’s work, it had acquired its current title, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California.

From a May 1964 oral history interview between Lange and Richard K. Doud for the Archives of American Art:

I stopped at a gas station to get some gas, and there was a car full of people, a family there at that gas station…I looked at the license plate on the car, and it was Oklahoma. I got out of the car, and I approached them and asked something about which way they were going… And they said, “We’ve been blown out.” I questioned what they meant, and then they [t]old me about the dust storm. They were the first arrivals that I saw…. All of that day, driving for the next maybe two hundred miles- no, three or four hundred miles, I saw these people. And I couldn’t wait. I photographed it…

The Resettlement Administration (and its successor agency the Farm Services Administration) commissioned the former studio photographer to record history. From 1935 to 1940, Lange “brought the plight of the poor and forgotten, particularly displaced farm families and migrant workers, to public attention.”

In 1942, the U.S. War Relocation Authority hired Lange to “document the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to armed camps in the American West.”

Dorothea Lange WWII
Civilian Executive Order No. 5. Dorothea Lange, (April 1942). LOC.

From a Library of Congress online profile of “women journalists, photographers, and broadcasters who documented World War II at home and abroad.”

Lange’s earlier work documenting displaced farm families and migrant workers during the Great Depression did not prepare her for the disturbing racial and civil rights issues raised by the Japanese internment. Lange quickly found herself at odds with her employer and her subjects’ persecutors, the United States government.

To capture the spirit of the camps, Lange created images that frequently juxtapose signs of human courage and dignity with physical evidence of the indignities of incarceration. Not surprisingly, many of Lange’s photographs were censored by the federal government, itself conflicted by the existence of the camps.

The true impact of Lange’s work was not felt until 1972, when the Whitney Museum incorporated twenty-seven of her photographs into Executive Order 9066, an exhibit about the Japanese internment. New York Times critic A.D. Coleman called Lange’s photographs “documents of such a high order that they convey the feelings of the victims as well as the facts of the crime (emphasis added.”

Lunch hour at the Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets. 1942.
Lunch hour at the Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets, San Francisco, California. Children of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents to spend the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where educational facilities will be established. Dorothea Lange (17 April 1942). National Archives.

From Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2010):

This photograph, often called Migrant Mother, is one of the most recognized pictures in the world… I have come to think of [Dorothea] Lange as a photographer of democracy, and for democracy. She was not alone in this commitment, for she had predecessors and colleagues, and today has many photographic descendants.


Her message–that beauty, intelligence, and moral strength are found among people of all circumstances–has profound political implications, of course. Her greatest commitment, though, was to what she called the “visual life.” This meant discovering and intensifying beauty and our emotional response to it.

Lange died on 11 October 1965 in San Francisco. She was 70 years old.

#scitech, #society, #photography (264/365)
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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