Dorothea Lange had a comfortable life.
The photographer lived in San Francisco with her husband and two sons, contentedly middle class. She ran a prosperous portrait studio throughout the 1920s. She could have stayed indoors, in her little world. Instead, she looked outward.
The Great Depression hit America in 1929. Lange saw labor strikes form in the streets of San Francisco. She saw breadlines get longer and crowds of unemployed swell. She turned her lens on their eyes, the expressions on their faces.
In 1933, she snapped a photograph: White Angle Bread Line, San Francisco.
A man turns away from a crowd of desperately hungry people. A woman known as the “White Angel” was distributing bread that day. There would not be enough. The man knew that, his gaze down, hands clasped, jaw set. Click. With an image, Lange had captured a feeling: despair.
It was not art. Or at least, it was not meant to be. Lange had discovered a great power in photography. It could raise awareness. It could send a message. It could trigger social change. But photography, at the time, was serving other purposes. It was, to her despair, “more concerned with illusion than reality. It does not reflect but contrives. It lives in a world of its own.” But in that world, she knew it could not, as art or science, be successful.
“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.”
So, Lange went to see the real world and took her camera with her. She went on the road, on assignment for the Farm Security Administration, part of the U.S. Agriculture Department. Her task was to document the impact of the Great Depression. For five years, she photographed real people. Farmers, workers, migrants. She captured the hardship and pain, but also pride and resilience.
“They have built homes here out of nothing,” she wrote. Cardboard and plywood shacks. “They have planted trees and flowers. These flimsy shacks represent many a last stand to maintain self-respect.”
One of the photographs she took would change her life, and the world.
She almost did not take it. She drove twenty miles past that pea pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California, north of Los Angeles. But something made her turn back that March day in 1936.
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding field and birds that the children killed.”
Florence Owens Thompson was thirty-two years old and had seven children. The farm’s crop was frozen. There was no work or food. Thompson had had to sell the tires from her car to buy some for her children.
Lange took six photos, then, “I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.” She informed the authorities, who sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camp the following day.
Thompson’s portrait became the icon of the Great Depression. Of the hundreds of thousands that were taken, the thousands of words that were written, none captured the captured the suffering of a nation like Lange’s Migrant Mother.
Dorothea Lange spent her entire life documenting injustice. She and her camera took the world with them to Japanese-American internment camps, to shantytowns and fields in rural America, to Ireland, Korea, Pakistan, Vietnam. Everywhere she went, she photographed the world as it was: raw, true, unfiltered. She also captured its words in captions spoken by the people she met:
“Somethin’ is radical wrong.”
“I don’t believe the President knows what’s happening to us here.”
She raised these people’s voices and paid tribute to their resilience. And to the rest of the world, she gave pause and, she hoped, a call for self-reflection and, ultimately action.
“That the familiar world is often unsatisfactory cannot be denied, but it is not, for all that, one that we need abandon. We need not be seduced into evasion of it any more than we need be appalled by it into silence.…
Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.”