“I can only say I knew I was looking at something,” documentary photographer DOROTHEA LANGE (1895–1965) said of her first famous photograph, “White Angel Breadline. San Francisco, California, 1933.” A successful portrait photographer of the city’s bourgeoisie and Bohemian sets, Lange was pulled from her studio to the street by the fate of those grasping to hang on to even the short end of the stick in Depression-era America. To this day, her photographs grab the viewer around the throat. Crippled by polio at age 7, Lange connected with those wounded by life and brought to the foreground her subjects’ inherent strength and self-possession. As she learned to “see” the world as it was, her nascent political awareness deepened and began to mirror the photographic process itself: she worked to bring what was hidden to light. Among her many indelible characters is “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936 of Florence Thompson and three of her children beneath the flap of their makeshift tent in a California migrant labor camp. Contracted by the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Lange veered from documenting soil erosion to capturing the erosion of human circumstance, and in so doing helped transform a nation’s attitude toward the poor and voiceless. Many of Lange’s documentary portraits are taken with the sky as the background, looking up at rather than down on her subjects. She photographed black sharecroppers in the South and interned Japanese Americans, although the latter body of work was suppressed by the government due to its unmistakable portrayal of dignified, everyday Americans subjected to degrading and harsh conditions. To those critics who feel that Lange exploited her subjects, a note: Florence Thompson’s gravestone reads, “Migrant Mother — a Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”
READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).