Depression, War, and Dorothea Lange

Dorothea LangeOn this day in 1895, the great photographer Dorothea Lange was born. She is generally known for her photographs of the Great Depression and World War II America. She is best known for her iconic photograph, Migrant Mother. As I wrote last year, the photo is great just based upon the aesthetics. “But there is also something about its primary subject—Florence Owens Thompson—who embodies both strength and pain that makes it particularly compelling. Add to that its social context and you have a classic. Thompson’s migrant farming family broke down in the pea-picker’s camp on Nipomo Mesa, where a couple of thousand other migrant workers had become stuck after a bad freeze had ruined the crop. The people there were starving and the publicity from the photo caused the government to step in and help the people.”

But it isn’t exactly reality. Originally, Thompson’s left hand was grasping the tent pole. Her thumb seemed to ruin the look of the photo, so Lange retouched the photo to remove it. Photographers are more like painters than we often know. It’s remarkable to me that Thompson was only 32 years old in this photo. Compare her face to Lange’s above, when she was forty.

Migrant Mother - Lange

This next photo breaks my heart. I don’t have a name for it, but it is of Japanese-American children in 1942. They are pledging allegiance as we all did as children. And then their families had their property taken from them and they were put into internment camps. One of our national shames:

Japanese Americans Children Pledging Allegiance 1942 - Lange

I wanted to end with a happy picture, but that isn’t really what Lange was all about. The following picture is really interesting. It is the storefront of an Asian Market. Wanto is an uncommon Japanese name. The picture tells a detailed story. Here is an immigrant who has been forced to sell (probably more or less gave away) his market. It was “Sold by White & Pollard.” And unlike that old “unauthentic” American Wanto, the new owner is a “true” American. The sign proudly proclaims, “I am an American,” as if Wanto was not. Remember the next time you hear Sarah Palin or some other conservative talking about the “real America,” this is what they’re talking about: white America—an America with minority groups know their place. Check out that old General Motors’ LaSalle, a most American car, sitting in front of the store—probably the new owner’s. The other two photo are poignant; this one just makes me angry:

I Am an American - Lange

Happy birthday Dorothea Lange!


To see more of her work, check out Inspiration Hut, World Famous—The Photography Portfolio of Dorothea Lange. For one thing, you will be able to see Thompson’s thumb. And for another, you will get to see a few kind of happy photos. Oh, and that’s Lange herself sitting on top of that car!

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