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Capturing the Great Depression Era: Uncovering Untold Stories through Powerful Imagery

The Chronicles of Yesterday 9-11 minutes 2/19/2023


Depression, Unemployed,destitute man leaning against vacant store-photo by Dorothea LangePhoto bycommons.wikimedia

On October 29, 1929, the American economy was completely turned upside down. The day would become known as Black Tuesday. On this day, the American stock market crashed. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, combined with environmental conditions, allowed for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which led the United States into the worst economic downturn the industrialized world had ever seen. Millions of investors lost their fortunes, farmers were nearly wiped out, and unemployment was at an all-time high.

Through a series of economic relief programs known as the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt restored the American economic system. However, many Americans endured harsh living conditions throughout the 1930s as the economy was built back up. It’s hard to understand what conditions were really like during the time. Still, the work of photojournalists from the era helps to give us a glimpse into what life was like for individuals living during the Great Depression.

One of the most famous photos captured during this era is that of the Migrant Mother. The American photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, captured the iconic photo of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in 1936. While this work is the most well-known and reproduced photos of the era, Lange captured a plethora of historical Depression-era photos. Her work not only helps to tell the story of the Great Depression today, but it also revolutionized the development of documentary photography forever. The life of Dorothea Lange was nothing short of amazing.

The Origin Story of Dorothea Lange

On May 26, 1895, a baby girl was brought into the world in Hoboken, New Jersey. This little girl was welcomed by second-generation German immigrants Heinrich and Johanna Nutzhorn. Heinrich and Johanna bestowed upon their daughter the name of Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn. While Heinrich and Johanna wanted to provide Dorothea with the world, they could not provide her with a picturesque childhood.

At the age of 7, Dorothea contracted polio. While she was one of the lucky ones that survived, the disease weakened her right leg and left her with a permanent limp. Just five years after overcoming her battle with polio, Dorothea’s father up and left the family. Heinrich’s decision to abandon his family left his two children and wife in a challenging position.

On reflection of her polio diagnosis, Lange made this statement,

“[It] was the most important thing that happened to me, formed, guided, instructed, helped, and humiliated me.”

While the years following the abandonment were tough, the family made it through. After her father left the family, Dorothea also decided to drop her father’s surname and take on her Mother’s maiden name. At the age of twelve, the young lady officially became Dorothea Lange.

Finding Photography

After graduating from the Wadleigh High School for Girls in 1913, Dorothea Lange went to the New York Training School for Teachers. However, she soon decided that teaching school would not truly satisfy her. At nearly twenty years old, Lange found herself at a crossroads. She knew she didn’t want to spend her life inside the classroom but was unsure of what she wanted to do. This uncertainty diminished after Lange began working in a photo studio in New York City.

After finding photography, Lange transferred to Columbia University. At Columbia, Lange studied photography under Clarence Hudson White and was able to apprentice under the famed Arnold Genthe. After receiving a formal education in photography and spending a few years honing in on her craft, Lange was ready to take her skills into the world. In 1918, Lange left New York City with a friend. The pair’s goal was to travel the world and capture breathtaking photos. Rather than making it across the world, the two only made it to San Francisco, California.

Ultimately, the lack of financial resources led to Lange’s worldwide photography expedition being halted in San Francisco. While it may have been disappointing at the time, Lange was able to find great success and happiness in San Francisco. She became acquainted with many photographers in the area and met some social elites who greatly appreciated her work. Lange became friends with an investor who helped her to establish her portrait studio in San Francisco.

Lange spent nearly the 1920s inside her studio, shooting portraits of many of San Francisco’s social elites. During this decade, Lange also met the western painter Maynard Dixon. Dorothea and Maynard married in 1920. The couple would welcome two sons into the world. Lange gave birth to Daniel in 1925 and to John in 1930. Lange became one of the many extraordinary women who learned to balance both motherhood and a career successfully. While this is a familiar feat today, it was pretty progressive in the early twentieth century.

Breaking Out of the Studio

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lange’s desire to move beyond the four walls of her photography studio was ever-increasing. Lange began taking her camera with her out and about in San Francisco. She started capturing images of street photography and the citizens of San Francisco. The photos she was able to capture inspired her to expand her reach.

By the 1930s, Lange had switched entirely her focus from portrait to documentary-style photography. The photos she captured as a documentary photographer helped to document important historical moments and allowed her to leave a lasting legacy.

By the early 1930s, the Great Depression could have been felt around the United States. Lange had already begun photographing the effects in San Francisco. These early photos captured the eye of the economist Paul Schuster Taylor. Taylor worked as an economics professor at UC Berkeley from 1922 until 1962. In 1934, Taylor reached out to Lange. He wanted to have Lange capture photos for a research project he was working on. The two hit it off and began working together shortly after.

The federal Farm Security Administration hired them to document the westward migration of displaced farmers due to the Dust Bowl. Taylor collected quantitative and qualitative data, while Lange documented the experience through photos.

Both Lange and Taylor were married to other people when they met. However, after a year of knowing each other and working on projects, they left their respective spouses. They ended up getting married on December 6, 1935. They would maintain a living and working partnership together for the rest of their lives.

Leaving a Lasting Legacy

Lange’s most iconic photograph is that of the Migrant Mother, which she captured in 1936. This photo, along with others she captured during the time, brought the plight of displaced farmers and sharecroppers to the public's attention. The photos she captured of displaced farmers during the Depression also inspired a generation of documentary photographers who came after Lange.

While Lange’s legacy focuses heavily on her Depression-era photography, she also made significant contributions to society through her photography following the era. World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. The war lasted for six years, ending on September 2, 1945. While most of the battles were fought on European soil, there were struggles on the American home front.

The Japanese Empire bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Following this attack, the U.S. government under FDR forcefully relocated over 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans into internment camps between 1942 and 1946. Lange and Taylor were among a small handful of prominent whites to protest the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during these years.

Lange traveled to many internment facilities, documenting the facilities and the experience the Japanese Americans faced through her photography. The Office of War Information hired her to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans. However, authorities deemed Lange’s photographs too sensitive for the public at the time, and many were impounded. Most images were not allowed to be viewed by the public until long after the war. Luckily, many photos Lange captured of the Japanese internment camps can be viewed today at the National Archives.

While Lange decided that teaching wasn’t for her in her early twenties, in the mid-1940s, at 50, she found herself in the classroom again. In 1945, Lange was invited to teach photography at the California School of Fine Arts by Ansel Adams. In 1952, Lange co-founded the photography magazine Aperture with several talented photographers. Teaching photography and co-founding a magazine were the last two significant achievements of Lange’s extraordinary life. At the time, Lange was in her 50s, and her health had declined seriously.

After contributing notable works to society for several decades, Lange passed away on October 11, 1965, at the age of seventy. Ultimately, her death was caused by esophageal cancer. However, she experienced recurring pains and weakness in her later years due to the poliovirus she had contracted in her youth. Despite her pain, Dorothea Lange led an extraordinary life and left a lasting legacy. Many of the photos she captured throughout her life live on in today's history books.

“One should use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.” — Dorothea Lange.