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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Paquito D'Rivera, who has won 12 Grammys, is celebrated both for his artistry in Latin jazz and his achievements as a classical composer. D'Rivera's latest project, “Jazz Meets the Classics,” was released this month. He joins us on the latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."