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

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

"Soul Lounge" host Shawna Renee catches up with soul singer and songwriter Russell Taylor to hear what he’s been up to since winning the VH1 "You Oughta Know" title in 2013. She also convinces him to share a few songs from his album "War of Hearts."