Dorthea Lange’s Depression Era Photography

Lange's 1936, Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson

A few year’s ago I came across the work of the Farm Security Administration’s Great Depression documentary photography. This particular image by Dorthea Lange has stayed in my mind and draws me back again and again. Partly because of the raw emotion in the image, the craftsmanship and artistry of the photographer, and an appreciation for the circumstances under which it was taken and the state of the technology at the time. To get a feel for the latter two, consider this photo of Dorthea at work.


The story of the “Migrant Mother” in Dorthea’s own words:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

Other, color photographs commissioned by the FSA such as this one, can be viewed by clicking on the photo itself.

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