News / Arts & Entertainment

Photographer Captured Iconic Depression-era Moments

Dorothea Lange in California, Feb. 1936.
Dorothea Lange in California, Feb. 1936.
Faiza Elmasry
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" by Dorothea Lange, Nipomo, San Luis Obispo County, California, 1936 (Photo credit: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • "Enforcement of Executive Order 9066: Japanese Children Made to Wear Identification Tags" by Dorothea Lange, Hayward, California, 1942 (Photo credit: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)
  • "Five Members of Ola Self-Help Sawmill Co-Op" by Dorothea Lange, Gem County, Idaho, 1939. (Photo credit: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • "Saturday Afternoon Shopping and Visiting on Main Street of Pittsboro North Carolina," by Dorothea Lange, 1939. (Photo credit: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • "Nepal" by Dorothea Lange, 1958 (Photo credit: © Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor)
  • "Venezuela" by Dorothea Lange, 1960 (Photo credit: © Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor)
  • "Korea" by Dorothea Lange, 1958 (Photo credit: © Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor.)
  • "Two women" by Dorothea Lange, Egypt, 1963 (Photo credit: © Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor)

“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.  

You May Like

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Tour Will Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

US secretary of state to visit 5 countries in the Middle East, South Asia in bid to strengthen economic and security ties, ease concerns over deal with Tehran More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”