Depression Diaries. Dorothea Lange and her Documentary Photography Work during the Great Depression in America

Term Paper, 2018

24 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. White Angel Breadline: What is documentary photography?

3. Dejected and stooped: Documenting men during the Great Depression

4. Migrant Mother: An icon

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

One says that a picture is worth a thousand words. People have an idea of what the Great Depression in America looked like, owed to different photographers who portrayed both economic and cultural consequences of the global crisis. One of those photographers was Dorothea Lange. In a first examination of her work documenting the people behind the Great Depression in America, I quickly noticed that critics are either in favour of, or against Lange’s photographic work. Since I could not agree with either position, I decided that I want to find my own. By studying and examining different photographs both in the context of the Great Depression and the traditional idea behind documentary photography, I finally discovered what I think of her work. Beginning her career as a documentary photographer, Lange acted as a silent observer behind the camera. She recorded what America’s people had to suffer during the depression process without any editing or staging. Yet throughout the years, Lange increasingly went astray the path of documentary photography’s basic concepts. Correspondingly, I argue that Dorothea Lange in some of the presented works succeeded in recording reality according to the standard set of photojournalism. However, in others she disregarded or even broke unwritten rules of documentary photography.

In diaries, people reflect their own reality and their individual feelings. There are no lies, and even if others would state there are, the diary’s owner would still reject that, claiming that the reputed lies are their own reality. Hence, diaries are considered as somehow reporting the truth, or at least one kind of individual truth. Yet what about Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Great Depression? Are they the actual truth or are they her interpretation?

2. White Angel Breadline: What is documentary photography?

Documentary photography is supposed to display what happens in the world, especially within society. It should actively distribute in cultural and social changes by demonstrating the truth (Becker 7). The greatest aim is to educate people on both improving social and cultural circumstances by triggering emotion and move the viewer (Stott 8). Demonstrations, war, violence, racial discrimination and the Great Depression in America are topics documentary photography deals with. America’s former president Franklin D. Roosevelt for example described the Great Depression as something provoked by humans, therefore something that should also be corrected by humans (20). Regarding this thought, it is obvious that documentary photography is one of several instruments to educate society. The following chapter is an introduction of what documentary photography is and how it works, illustrated in one of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photographs.

Documentary photography in America started after the 1920s, when social changes occupied the country (Becker 6). Dorothea Lange was one of millions that were affected. She was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895 as daughter of a middle-class family. Before World War I, she finished her photography studies in New York and moved to San Francisco in 1919. From this point on, she worked as a portrait photographer and earned a living for her and her family (Stevens and Fogel 13). After years of portraying San Francisco’s rich and famous, she devoted herself to documentary photography in 1933, focusing on the poor and suffering. At that time, the Great Depression had reached its climax (Durden 3). The depression, first economic, started with the stock market crash in 1929, better known as “Black Thursday”. Some historians blame the United States of America to be the cause of this worldwide economic and financial downturn due to the Wall Street Collapse. However, primarily inconsiderate bank lending and stock market speculation form the main reasons (Aldcroft 111). Miserable private banking systems and further dropping stock prices led to a picture of unemployment America had never experienced before. The number of unemployed rose from 3.2 to 24.9 percent in 1933, followed by 26.7 percent only one year later. This horrific situation, for a once prosperous nation, certainly also affected social life. Schools and universities either were shut or went bankrupt, people experienced the downturn in terms of famine and poverty (Rothbard xiii). To sum up, America had been turned upside down. As stated earlier, documentary photography displays social miseries and changes within society. What did it document during the Great Depression?

Misery and distress on America’s streets became subject of Lange’s initial documentary photographs. White Angel Breadline (Fig. 1) was only the beginning of a documentation covering the forgotten people behind the depression.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1: Lange, Dorothea. White Angel Breadline. 1933, gelatin silver print, Collection of Oakland Museum of California, San Francisco, Accessed 19 February 2018.

Not far from Lange’s studio, a widow named Lois Jordan (also called “The White Angel”) had opened a soup kitchen, supporting the unemployed and starving. Lange took several shots of the people queuing in front of it (Acker 62). Figure 1 shows an elderly man; waiting, turning his back to the crowd. His hands are folded, his eyes are not visible, covered under his hat. Lange had felt the need to document this depression, urgency to act, and could not turn away from the social grievances any longer. Documentary photography now became her new vocation and she left artistic portraying. Her understanding of art changed from once portraying beautifully dressed and smiling people to producing pictures that demanded change, recording what really happened in the world (64).

“What really happened” is a phrase worthy of discussion when it comes to the question what documentary photography actually is. Since I briefly introduced it in the beginning, I will now explain it in detail. When thinking of documents, one may refer to a picture of a printed certificate or record in their mind’s eye. With documents, people associate something of bureaucratic importance, something official. The dictionary translation of document refers to documents as being a proof, legal or historical, listing facts without editing or distorting reality (Stott 5). One carries around impersonal documents such as identity cards or bills; documents which provide objective information about a person and therefore also useful to others (6). Yet what about photographs? Are they documents? Documents can be “human”, forming the opposite of official, legal evidence. This type of document can both transmit and cause emotions and feelings as it is raw, unedited and displays reality (8). Photographs can be referred to as social constructions (Becker 5). They contain information; they can be proof and evidence. Documentary photography has as its aim to not only inform people about different circumstances but to move and touch them (Stott 8). “We”, the viewers, can collect information about another person’s living circumstances or their feelings and thoughts by simply looking at a shot someone took of them. Suddenly, the viewer has the impression to somehow know the person pictured because one is informed through what they visually experience – and this exactly causes feelings (9). Documentary photographs follow the aim of addressing the public and educating them about social miseries combined with art (Gordon 698). Further, it requires that photojournalist’s worry about their publications’ effects on society (Becker 7). Lastly, it must be honest, direct and without any kind of manipulation, meaning editing or staging (Curtis 2). How does that apply to Lange’s White Angel Breadline ? In the following, I will show that Lange succeeded in combining the documentary approach with triggering viewers’ emotion in this particular photograph.

Though not being there – in or near the queue – or having any contextual information, viewers can grasp what the elderly man in the photograph must be experiencing. One can see the conditions he is living under, due to his filthy hat and dirty hands. In addition, his face is unshaved. He either must be physically working hard, or he is lacking access to water for cleaning – or both. Although the most vital part of the human’s face, the eyes, are covered, emotion is still transmitted. The man is pulling down the corners of his mouth. He is hunching over a fence, folding his hand. His half clenched, half folded hands suggest that he both is desperate and forlorn but also praying to God or the like, probably for recovery and redemption (cf. Curtis 16). In addition, he is turning his back to the crowd which raises following questions: Is he feeling tired of the mass? Or is he being ashamed because he must queue in a breadline to receive food? Latter idea is supported by the fact that all the other men surrounding the photograph’s subject are wearing better clothes; neatly hats and coats. Now even without knowing the man or having any written information present, compassion is triggered simply by what one visually perceives. Like artistic paintings which receive their meaning by the painters themselves, critics or collectors, photographs come to life and find meaning through the people that are involved and shown, and how the world understands them while simultaneously adding meaning (Becker 5). White Angel Breadline is neither a staged nor planned photograph. Lange herself, after she had taken the photograph, stated:

I can only say I knew I was looking at something. You know there are moments such as these when time stands still and all you do is hold your breath and hope it will wait for you. And you just hope you will have enough time to get it organized in a fraction of a second on that tiny piece of sensitive film. (qtd. in Acker 63)

Regarding this, it becomes obvious that White Angel Breadline was a spontaneous shot, documenting reality and showing social evils, demanding society to give attention and change something. With her photograph, Lange is humanising the depression in the form of a desolate, suffering old man. As a result, we realise that the Great Depression in America is not only facts and figures but much more – or especially – the forgotten people behind.

Summarizing, social documentary photography targets social improvement and aims at educating the public (Stott 21). By the public’s and observer’s emotion, documentary photography attracts attention onto society’s crises. As a matter of fact, White Angel Breadline is an exemplary demonstration of documentary photography. Without any staging or the like, Lange simply captured what happened to one individual, representative for so many during the Great Depression in America. A further investigation of what individuals and the mass were suffering from will be part of the next chapter.

3. Dejected and stooped: Documenting men during the Great Depression

Not only living circumstances had altered due to the economic crisis. Manhood changed too, caused by the economic pressure men were under. Dorothea Lange, unlike her other photography colleagues, dared to document this in her work (Gordon 711). With the first two photographs in this chapter (Fig. 2, 3), I will show again how Lange succeeded in documenting reality. The second photograph (Fig. 4) however discusses the issue of contextualising and publishing photographs.

In 1933, Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia University economist had come to Washington. Being one of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisors, Tugwell became undersecretary of agriculture. 1935, the so-called “Resettlement Administration” was created under the leadership of Tugwell (Wharton 223, Curtis 2). In his opinion, the worn-out fields in America were the main reason of agricultural poverty. Trying to shift people living and working on profitless, uneconomical fields over to fertile land, he hoped to improve on the alarming agrarian situation. Three years later, in 1938, the Resettlement Administration was absorbed by the “Farm Security Administration”, established by the executive order. The Farm Security Administration was part of the “New Deal”, a programme run by former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Curtis 2). The New Deal aimed at working on economic remedy and restructuring the nation’s finances, its agriculture, industry and the like (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica). The Farm Security Administration wanted to improve on moderating poverty in rural areas, especially those of the Dust Bowl and pay for the consequences of the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933. Latter had evoked that farm production was reduced, people working on farms were substituted by mechanization and export surplus was cut, accompanied by raising prices. Sharecroppers and growers were consequently forced off their land (Wharton 223). Tugwell though wanted that agricultural laborers were treated just like any other occupation group in America, integrated in the working class. The Department of Agriculture, responsible for American farmers and growers, to this point however had neither payed attention to Tugwell’s concept nor attended to improve the agronomists’ circumstances. Hence, Tugwell employed Roy Stryker, economist and photographer as well as leader of the “Historical Division”. Together with a group of photographers, Stryker had been instructed to document American farmers’ lives. Thereby, their image should be improved by documenting their lives holistically in order to give them a chance to recover from the Great Depression (Hertflder 20). These photographers, together with Stryker, wanted to rationalise the Farm Security Administration’s agenda to the Congress (Wharton 223). Dorothea Lange was one of these photographers (Gordon 703). The project’s aim was to explore and investigate agricultural industry both in terms of social and economic relations, desperately trying to influence the Department of Agriculture’s future acts (698). Farmers’ real life should be depicted by the help of photographs in public, eager for public support (Stevens and Fogel 12, 13).


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Depression Diaries. Dorothea Lange and her Documentary Photography Work during the Great Depression in America
University of Koblenz-Landau
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depression, diaries, dorothea, lange, documentary, photography, work, great, america
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Anonymous, 2018, Depression Diaries. Dorothea Lange and her Documentary Photography Work during the Great Depression in America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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