The Early Documentary Photography of Dorothea Lange


In the early 1930s the Depression left more than fourteen million people unemployed in America. The stock market crash of 1929 had set off a series of crises that had caused banks to collapse and businesses to go bankrupt. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just launched the New Deal to attempt to rescue the country from financial ruin. In the 1920s Dorothea Lange had studied photography at Columbia University, New York, under Clarence H. White, before beginning a trip around the world, financing herself by selling her photographs. By the time she reached San Francisco she had run out of money so she settled and set up a photography studio to make portraits of wealthy families. Lange moved in a circle of San Francisco artists and photographers including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. She had married the painter of the American West, Maynard Dixon, and had two sons but as the Depression set in, Dixon was unable to sell his paintings to galleries and the marriage dissolved.

In 1932-3, from her studio window, Lange could see a soup kitchen that had been set up by a wealthy San Franciscan widow, Lois Jordan, to feed the destitute. Calling herself the ‘White Angel’, Jordan relied solely on donations to supply meals for more than one million men over a three-year period. The soup kitchen was in a lot filled with junk on the Embarcadero, near Filbert Street, and the area became known as the White Angel Jungle. Lange was a working mother of two and her business was struggling as her wealthy clients also felt the effects of the economic crisis. She began to change direction from portrait photography towards documentary and started photographing scenes from her studio window.

With newfound freedom after the separation from Dixon, one day Lange decided to take to the streets with her brother, Martin, to photograph the homeless and unemployed of the city. They went to the Mission District where the streets were filled with the destitute. Lange was worried that the people she photographed would think she was humiliating them and she was anxious that her bulky equipment would be hard to use in the streets but she spent the day working unnoticed. She made 12 exposures on the streets that afternoon with a 3 1⁄4 x 4 1⁄4 Graflex camera. The three final photographs were of the White Angel breadline. When Lange returned to her studio she removed the film from the magazine holder and handed the holder to her assistant, Roger Sturtevant, so that he could reload it. The following day Sturtevant took the holder into the darkroom and, whilst the light was turned off, reached in and found a film at the bottom. He developed the film and the image of White Angel Breadline appeared.

The photograph shows a crowded pen of unemployed men queuing for food with one man turned in the opposite direction to the rest. He is unshaven and hunched over with a tin can between his arms and his hands clasped together. Isolated from the other men whilst also unbearably close to them, the man appears lost in thought. By focusing on this one individual rather than the crowd that surrounds him, Lange created both a collective portrait of humanity and an individual one. Speaking about the photograph she said, “I saw something, I encompassed it, and I had it.” Having put a print of White Angel Breadline on the wall of her studio, her clients frequently asked her what she was planning to do with this kind of photograph. Later Lange would tell future photography students, “don’t let that question stop you, because ways open that are unpredictable, if you pursue them far enough.”

The photograph was Lange’s first to become widely known and would be hailed as one of the greatest images of Depression era in America. George P. Elliott has said: “This image does not derive its power from formal elegance so much as from its being inextricably entangled with the comment it is making. It is art for life’s sake.” Lange’s photographs of the destitute in San Francisco marked a turning point in her career as she continued to focus on documentary photography. They led to her commission in 1935 from the Farm Security Administration to photograph the rural poor, a project which would produce one of the most famous photographs of all time: Migrant Mother (1936)

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