Dorothea Lange: ‘photographer Of The People’

Dorothea Lange was a Modern Photographer known for her Depression-era images of her crisis-stricken home country of America. Born in 1895, she began practicing art around start of 1930 until her death in 1965, she experienced both the extreme highs and lows of the economy being the ‘roaring twenties’ and the Great Depression respectively. This essay will firstly explore her transition in becoming a ‘photographer of the people’, followed by her timeless composition and finally gesture of the figures she captured, all shown through her key work, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933.

Before the start of the great depression, Lange began her career as a portraiture photographer. During this time Lange took many peoples portraits and through her job Lange had to adjust and learn to photograph different faces and get to know many different personalities. She began to realise because of this, that she had a deep-rooted connection to people. She saw the portrait as a way into one’s soul. However, her ability to explore one’s story was limited as all of her earlier works were shoot in a studio against a flat background, devoid of all context as seen through her photograph of Adele Raas, San Francisco, c. 1920. As the Great Depression began to affect America and could no longer be ignored by the masses, Lange began to further realise that her connection to people was not limited to the people that was paying for her service or even those famous but also those people whose dire situation was better realised through looking into their physical and social circumstances. Her work, White Angel Breadline is therefore a key transition in the artist’s career as it marked the point where she began to move away from portraiture into work where she saw herself as a ‘photographer of the people’.

Dorothea Lange once quoted that, “whatever I photograph I do not molest or tamper with or arrange.” However, looking at works that followed White Angel Breadline, San Francisco such as the more well-known work, Migrant Mother, Napoli, California, 1936 it could be suggested that a structured, deliberate composition would not have be more effective. Even though this natural composition in Migrant Mother, is a later work of Lange’s, this essay would argue that this style of composition was always a strong characteristic of Lange’s work. Looking at the similarities between the works, both appear to have been deliberately cropped by the artist, removing the unneeded detail. Specifically, in White Angel Breadline, this further adds to the sense of confinement created by all of the figures gathering in one place. Both works also follows the ‘rule of thirds’. In White Angel Breadline the bottom horizontal in the work is created through the division the wooden fence creates while the other horizontal appears to be drawn by the heads of the figures closest/ leaning on the fence. These figures also work to create the verticals in the piece where they can be drawn between each side of the central figure. The titles of both pieces are also similar as they both accurately described what is being captured by the artist. The ‘White Angel’ referred to in the title by Lange was a soup kitchen ran by a wealthy citizen, Louis Jordan and was located in San Francisco on the Embarcadero. It was a kitchen which supplied men with soup and bread which were left unemployed and unable to care for themselves by the Great Depression. However, the ‘White Angel’ in the photograph is not the focus of the photograph, as it appears in the top right of the photograph, away from the eye of the viewer. Our eye is instead guided to the central figure of the photograph. 

The audience’s gaze isn’t even directed at the crowd of men surrounding the main figure, even though they arguably equally deserve the same amount of attention. However, the central figure appears to be more well accustomed with a life of poverty, indicated by the highlighting on his shabby, tattered, low brim hat and the cup, revealing its lack of contents and the gesture of his hands, folding in resignation. However, despite appearing to need help more urgently than the others he is surrounded by, he is faced away from the direction of the line, in no immediate hurry to be the first to receive his share of rations. The previous mention of the highlighted areas combined with his overall slumped and closed posture, in which most of his weight is beared on the fence, creates a passive and detached attitude. This is further by tilt of his head towards the ground, where the low brim hat leaves his face in shadow, obscuring his individuality. The contrast or ‘art of the opposite’ created in the figure act to create an ‘everyday man’, a figure which the audience can relate to. Lange personally believed that every photo she took was a self-portrait. Thus, White Angel Breadline represents her possible feelings of detachment and isolation at the time. However, even though the Great Depression occurred almost ninety years ago, this essay suggests that not only does this photograph represent the feelings of the people and artist at the time, it also however, is timeless whereby the same feelings are present in today’s society.

In conclusion, Dorothea Lange and her documentary photography of the Great Depression in America is timeless and inspired many later generations of documentary photographers that followed her. Her transition from being a commissioned portrait photographer to a ‘photographer of the people’ was one further allowed her to explore her deep-rooted connection with people. She placed emphasis on these people through her natural, yet effective composition. Finally, she captured the people she photographed at a time where their gesture helped to communicate the feelings associated with a life of poverty that the great depression created. Although at the time, her work didn’t change the injustices she experienced and documented, it has allowed for future generations to more naturally witness the experiences faced by though in such dire situations of the times.

16 December 2021
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