Dorothea Lange Capturing Great Depression

Dorothea Lange Capturing Great Depression  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Photographer Dorothea Lange used her camera to tell gripping stories about the people and places of the Great Depression. She captured hungry strangers and crowded tenements, the things society often overlooked.

“I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck.”
— Dorothea Lange

Her passion was photographing people as they were. 

Over a five year period Lange traveled through 22 states photographing what the camera refused to ignore, like the pea pickers in California and the bread lines of San Francisco.  Newspapers and magazines published Lange’s photos and her work enabled readers to see with their hearts what was happening all around them. 

Lange was the only woman hired by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt to document the Great Depression, to take the pictures of the migrants’ living and working conditions. Her heartfelt captions made the photos all the more real. 

“I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck,” she said.

The migrants worked 16 hour days and so did Lange. One of her photos “Migrant Mother” depicts a frantic mom unable to feed her children. Clothes, bedding, even the family’s tires had been sold to purchase a little food.

“The San Francisco News” ran the photo and the federal government immediately shipped 20,000 pounds of food to the California fields. Little did Lange know that “Migrant Mother” would become her most famous image.  

Without words her photos captured the hopelessness and uncertainty of the Great Depression.  The images shocked Americans. Their shantytown shelters were made of old cardboard, wooden boxes and discarded tin roofing. They were clustered by the side of a river or under highway overpasses so people were sure they wouldn’t be chased away.                

Lange was also one of the few photographers documenting the heartbreaking Japanese internment camps during World War II and helped develop documentary photography.   

Her work appeared in “Life” magazine as well as in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Her photos also influenced John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“I’ve never not been sure that I was a photographer, any more than you would not be sure that you were yourself,” she said.  

Lange had an uncanny ability to capture joy and sadness in the faces of children.  Growing up with polio Lange understood suffering all too well. To hide her own limp she often wore long, flowing skirts. 

She saw that more than half the children crammed into New York City tenements did not attend school. They worked in sweatshops alongside their parents for 10-12 hours a day just so they could eat.      

“I knew how to keep an expression…that would draw no attention, so no one would look at me,” she said. “I used that my whole life in photography…If I don’t want anyone to see me I can make the kind of face so eyes go off me.”

Lange traveled the world with her camera until her death in 1965. She is listed in “The 100 Most Influential Women of All time”. 

On Oct. 25, Swann Auction Galleries featured a selection of Lange’s photos in its Art & Storytelling:  Photographs & Photobooks auction. 

Dorothea Lange

Farm Security Administration; silver print portfolio of 10 Lange photographs; Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein; various sizes and dates; printed circa 1976; $5,250.

Woman of the High Plains, silver print; Texas Panhandle; 1938; printed 1960s; image 14 by 11 inches; $13,750.  

Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas; silver print; 1938; printed 1960s; image 11 by 14 inches; $15,000.

White Angel Breadline; silver print; 1933; printed 1960s; image 14 by 11 inches; $30,000. 


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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