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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Matthew Wade sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his new CD, “Diamond from Coal,” his fourth album with his band, My Silent Bravery.