Perhaps the most enduring image from the Great Depression years in the United States is a black-and-white photograph of an impoverished agricultural worker surrounded by her children. “Migrant Mother” was taken in 1936 by photojournalist Dorothea Lange, whose iconic shots came to define an era in American history.
It happened on a cold day in northern California when Lange was driving home from a photo shoot. Exhausted, with her camera bags packed on the front seat beside her, she passed a hand-lettered sign that read, “Pea pickers camp.”
“She just couldn’t let it go. She went back,” said Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s goddaughter. "[She] got out of the car with her camera and approached a hungry, desperate mother who was surrounded by her little children who were grubby and clearly underfed. She never even asked the woman’s name. She just took a few photographs. They chatted for a minute, got back to her car and drove home. But she realized that these pea pickers, they had been stranded because there had been a freeze and the peas couldn’t be picked.”
Lange developed the photographs right away.
“She rushed one over to the newspaper in San Francisco," said Partridge. "They publicized it immediately and federal food aid was brought to these migrant workers. Then the photograph went on to become emblematic of the whole Great Depression.”
“Migrant Mother” now hangs in the Library of Congress. It is one of dozens of photographs Partridge included in her new book, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning. The title comes from the way Lange described her transition from portrait photographer of the wealthy to chronicler of the American condition.
“One day she was looking down from her studio, which was on the second floor of a building, and she saw these homeless men come up, walk up to the corner and pause, not knowing which way to go, because they were homeless," said Partridge. "They had no money, they had no food, they had no prospects. She said to herself, ‘I am just going to take my camera and I'm going down into the streets and I’m going to make a photograph and I’m just going to bring the film back, and I'm going to develop it, print it and hang it on the wall, all in 24 hours, and see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning.’”
Partridge, whose family was very close to Lange’s, says the photographer’s ability to capture the inner feelings of struggling Americans was the result of patience, careful consideration of her subjects and her own personal experience with suffering.
“She had polio when she was 7. She walked the rest of her life with a limp, dragging her right foot forward," said Partridge. "That polio gave her a huge amount of compassion for people who had been struck down by circumstances beyond their control. When she went out photographing people, she had to walk up to them very slowly, and they would immediately see that she had a limp. She said that that helped her immediately develop a rapport with her subjects."
Lange also took photographic journeys outside the United States.
“Dorothea started in Japan, went to Korea, Indonesia, India, Cambodia. She also photographed in Vietnam. She particularly photographed beautifully in Korea," said Partridge. "Then she took another very important trip where she went to the Middle East. She photographed most beautifully in Egypt. What she was able to do is just really show what was there. So we see beautiful market places, we see fields where people are working...Now that these photographs are 50 years, 60 years old, we see a life that some of it is still there, some of it is gone.”
Partridge was only 14 when Lange died in 1965. She says there was a reason she waited all these years before writing about her godmother.
“I couldn’t have done that until I was older because I didn’t understand the full depth of her work," she said. "I didn’t get to know her as an adult except by doing this work and looking back at her life and watch her grow as a photographer - from being a documentary photographer into, late in her life, being really an artist.”
Partridge’s book is not the only work to honor the photographer. Diana Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter, is now working on a film about Lange's life, which will be released in 2014 with the same title, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.