Arts Assignment Paper on Contributions of Dorothea Lange in the American Depression-era

Contributions of Dorothea Lange in the American Depression-era


The study of women and photography art has lagged behind compared to that of male photographers in the last century. However, women photographers have greatly been recognized today as most published research works have concentrated on women photographers. Prominent women photographers have been revisited in many websites and journals; heroines such as Cunningham have been widely acknowledged. This is contrary to previous assertions that most female photographers did not have much impact during the pre-1900 photographic era.

Women have been playing active roles in photographic art despite not being credited its invention. To a greater extent, women have been on the forefront in printing, publishing, and taking photographs for their spouses. Studies reveal that notable women photographers include Talbot, the wife of the inventor of the Talbotype process, who wrote of her own experiments with photography as early as May 1839 (Bill n.p). Similarly, Anna Atkins, in the early 1840s, created an outstanding series of photo grams of plant specimens. Significantly, many women photographers pursued themes that touched on real issues that affected the society. In the United States, for example, a lot of activities happened during the Depression-era. During the period, women photographers like Dorothea Lange were participated in documenting such occurrences. The paper discusses the contributions of Dorothea Lange in the Depression-era, highlighting how she revealed the plight of displaced migrant workers and promoted the figure of women in society.

Background Information

American women and photography art data gleaned from public records establishes that women photographers found in the American West during the period between 1850 and 1950, approximately 10%. However, the number kept on rising as most women began taking active roles in voicing society concerns through photography. Nonetheless, women began taking multiple roles in the course of their photography career; such roles included employing print finishers, camera operators among others. Likewise, most women photographers were also involved in the art as amateur photographers. According to research findings, these women regularly participated in camera hubs and exhibited their works in different fine-art collections that were increasingly becoming common during the last century (Bill n.p). Women were attracted to photography the same way as other occupations such as medicine, nursing among others. Dabbling in fine art to capture landscapes and plights of people in society was considered a daring and remarkable achievement and venture at the time.

Catherine Weed has been acknowledged for many of her contributions in strengthening beliefs that women were critical in promoting photographic art in an area that was dominated by men. In fact, she wrote several materials and even lectured on the subject of women in photography beginning the year 1889. The most notable assertion was the elimination of special awards for ladies stating that “If the work of men and women is admitted to the same exhibition, it should be on equal terms” (Bill n.p). Studies have also revealed that years after 1890, there was an onset of a progressive era that greatly altered the role of women in the American society. It is during this period that many women were involved in jobs that were previously closed from them due to social, political, and economic factors. It is worth mentioning that greater female participation was witnessed in photography scene during this period. Photography became a phenomenon that appealed to many women; they began learning basics, especially from their family settings. It has been revealed through studies that majority of women began working with their family in some aspect in their photographic careers (Bill n.p).

Contributions of Dorothea Lange in Feminism Art

Dorothea was an accomplished American documentary photographer whose artworks have been displayed in many exhibitions and collections across the world. She was born on 1895 in Hoboken, her career span for many years until her ultimate death in San Francisco on 1965.

Specifically, Lange vehemently captured images of displaced farmers during the Great Depression in America. Her assertions created a strong foundation for documentary and photographic journalism. To acquire photography knowledge and skills, Lange studied photography at Columbia University in New York City. Using acquired knowledge from her study, Lange was able to travel around the world showcasing and selling her already composed photographs. She settled to work in a photography studio after running out of funds. It is at the studio that ideas and themes were manifested to her.

Helped in Policy Making by Government Agencies

Lange began taking images of unemployed men who wandered the streets of San Francisco. Such images earned her accolades as she was able to bring to light the desperation of men in society. These images were publicly exhibited and received recognition from the public on how part of the American population was suffering in the wake of the Great Depression. For instance, images by Lange led to the creation of a commission that created an agency, Farm Security Administration established by Agriculture Department. This agency was to respond to deplorable living conditions of men captured by Lange in images that often displayed actual names of immigrant workers. Her first major exhibition was held in 1934 establishing her reputation as a skilled documentary photographer. It is asserted that she later published her book that bundled most of her photographs (VanDemark 8). Meanwhile, in the course of her career, Lange received a Guggenheim fellowship that enabled her to record the mass evacuation of Japanese Americans to detention camps after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 (VanDemark 8). Lange is remembered for exposing the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farmers, and migrant workers in the 1930s, and since most of his activities were carried out for a government agency, her artworks informed many government policies. 

Different artists employ different techniques and styles in order to compose art and communicate vividly to the audience. For that matter, Lange borrows a lot from the lexis of modernism where she uses dramatic scenes to compose visually disturbing images objects. Based on this technique, design elements do not overpower subject in the composition but instead vehemently direct the viewer to a fresh appreciation of the individual’s predicament. According to visual analysts, mature work composed by Lange proved that works of art and documents are not mutually exclusive and that they can combine to produce beautiful, moving, and campaign images (VanDemark 9).  Moreover, Lange used innovative techniques proving that modern art should serve myriad purposes other than just conveying private feelings of an artist. In fact, popular modernist art should be integrated into services of popular journalism. “Lange’s works were not only useful in the Depression but also in the post-war years; they are characteristic of a lost age when a broad swath of the mass media was profoundly concerned with social issues” (VanDemark 5). Moreover, “she saw herself first as a journalist, and secondly, as an artist, and she worked with a burning desire to effect social change by informing the public of suffering faraway” (VanDemark 5).

Exposed Human Suffering

The White Angel Breadlin, composed in 1933 by Lange, has often been cited as prompting her breakthrough. It can be viewed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Henry Swift Collection. This piece of work assimilated what she was working on with what was going on in the streets. Specifically, the artist uses dull black and grey colors to convey the somber mood of the situation. It is evident from the painting that objects are drawn to the lines of people waiting for compensation and food relief. An elderly man is conspicuous in the photograph; the individual is facing the opposite side and is waiting for food at the soup kitchen. The elderly man is exhibiting depression which embodies the entire surrounding and picture. Lange focused her camera on the man’s face and had to achieve and explore texture as an element in art composition. Texture as an element of design has extensively been used to produce this visually disturbing image. To achieve this, Lange has expansively managed to depict rough body surface and wrinkles manifested on the hat of the main subject. As mentioned above, Lange has employed modernist technique to create an illusion of a fence in the foreground of the scene.

In The White Angel Breadlin, Lange explores a theme of showing the plight of farm workers who remained to struggle to survive in desperate and deployable condition due to the Great Depression. Historians assert that during the 1930s, many Americans migrated from Midwest and Southwest to California (Flynn 7). The result of this migration was the creation of physical and ideological conflicts on how to deal with seasonal farm labor. According to Lange, many American immigrants faced starvation and had to line in kitchens to get soup as compensation after enduring hard labor in farms. Lange managed to communicate to the entire country and world on the effects of the depression to individual livelihood.

Enumerated Societal Problems

There were a lot of societal problems during the Depression as depicted in “Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California (1936)” where the artist captures an individual whose anxious face tells it all. This photograph can be viewed at The Dorothea Lange Collection, The Oakland Museum of California. In this picture, a man seems to be beached and appear confused in his car. In addition to emphasizing to the theme of seclusion, Lange intentionally secluded a female occupant in the car. In order to achieve the intention of communication, Lange decided to catch the man unawares to persuade the audience and viewers to the true issues surrounding the image. Just like in other images, Lange uses dull colors, black and grey, to portray a gloomy mood of depression and desperation that was characteristic of the period. The texture was achieved through the depiction of rough surfaces necessitated by wrinkles on the face, clothes, and the rugged nature of the car’s interior surface. Lange tried to communicate themes of hardship and social problems using the image. Research has established that many artists tried to envisage the problems that the society faced due to the Great Depression (Flynn 4). Such problems included loss of jobs, food shortages, threats of deportation and forced repatriation.

Highlighted on Poverty  

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) is perhaps one of the most famous photographs in her collections. It can be viewed at San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library. The photograph depicts an encounter with a woman trapped in extreme poverty during the Great Depression; the female subject was recognized as an Oklahoma migrant, Florence Owens Thompson. “Lange vividly remembers her interactions with the woman because at the age of 32, the woman was already living on frozen vegetables from surrounding fields and wild birds killed by her children” (MoCP n.p).  Further, it has been revealed that as a matter of concern, the female subject had sold car wheels to buy food to affirm the state of poverty at the time (MoCP n.p). At the moment Lange met the woman, life was unbearable as can be seen from her face. The state of extreme poverty is reinforced by the expressive look of the woman and her children who can do nothing but just bow down their heads. Dull colors, black and grey, have been used to convey the sad mood arising from desperation and depression from lack of food and other basic amenities.

Highlighted and Spoke against Discrimination

Lange pursued other themes that bordered on discrimination. She was instrumental in depicting scenarios of racial discrimination and thus contributed in stemming the vice. Lange is among few women who were against racial discrimination and greatly campaigned against it. Discrimination and unfair treatment of blacks is depicted in “Plantation overseer and his field hands, near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936)” artwork where a supposedly white man is courageously and proudly showing off his property, this is based on his face and how he is resting his foot on the car.

Also, the man is also showing off for Black men who can be seen in the background. Lange uses comical relief to communicate discrimination theme to her audience as depicted by how she conveniently positions objects in the composition to fit her racial and social observation. In fact, Lange expediently contrasts the main objects of the composition and alludes to the assertion that they are from two different worlds. At the time of Great Depression, many African immigrants were employed to work on farms owned by whites. There were rampant cases of racial discrimination exhibited through poor payment of wages, harassment among other social ills. Through art, Lange was able to manifest the suffering of citizens arising from racial discrimination.

Discrimination and unfair treatment of people can also be said about the Members of the Mochida family (1942) photograph where members of a particular family are seen awaiting an evacuation bus. Comically, the individuals captured in the photograph are seen with identification tags to keep the family intact during the process of evacuation. At the time when America was considerably affected by the pangs of Depression, Mochida family was already a recognized household name in Eden town; this was partly because of the agricultural prowess of growing sweet peas. Despite their agricultural prowess, members of Mochida’s ancestry were to be interned as they were treated as lesser beings. The tags on the family and luggage echoed assertions of unfair treatment of people as they are viewed as less human. Despite the state authorizing use of this artwork, it was consequently seized for uncertainties that it would trigger global queries on how internees were treated in American soil.

Championed Rising Status of Women in Society through Art

As a woman, Lange championed on how relationships could be strained when women changed their roles in society. This is well depicted by Argument in a Trailer Camp (1944) image that shows an argument between couples. The composition is Tempura on canvas and can be viewed at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College in Chicago. It is affirmed that psychological depth and intensity substantively characterized some of Lange’s photographs. Lange depicts strained relationships in marriages at the time of Depression using this image, this was majorly anchored on the notion that women were readily assuming roles played by men in society, and were even engaging in hard labor as workforce. From the photograph it can be witnessed that the man is a sleuth of the woman, this is because the woman is captured on the lighted foreground in respect to the man. Consequently, Lange was highlighting the power of women at the period of war relegating men below the social order. Moreover, Lange was reinforcing the fact that women could do things previously reserved for men thus making women appear more powerful. 


Women have been key pillars in promoting photography art. The foundation stone had been laid by prominent women photographers like Cunningham and Lange among others. Women photographers brought to light the suffering endured by American citizens during the Depression era. Likewise, they played crucial roles in uplifting the status of women in society. This is supported by the assertion that women began picking up roles initially reserved for men. Dorothea Lange was among influential photographers because her photographs humanized negative effects of the Great Depression and highlighted the emerging role of women in American society. 

Works Cited

Flynn, Kyle. Photographing the Great Depression: Recovering the Historical Record. Inquiry

            Journal. 2009. Accessed from

VanDemark, Laura H. Dorothea Lange: Capturing the Reality of the Great Depression and New

Deal Era. Undergraduate Research Conference. 2017). Accessed from

Bill Jay. Women in Photography: 1840 – 1900. The British Journal of Photography, 20 March


MoCP. Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother and the documentary tradition. Museum of

            Contemporary Photography. Web. Accessed September 22, 2017.


Description: The White Angel Breadline (1933)

Figure 1: The White Angel Breadline (1933)

Description: Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California (1936)

Figure 2: In Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California (1936),

Description: Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Figure 3: Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Description: Plantation overseer and his field hands, near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936)

Figure 4: Plantation overseer and his field hands, near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936)

Description: Members of the Mochida family (1942)

Figure 5: Members of the Mochida family (1942)

Description: Argument in a Trailer Camp (1944)

Figure 6: Argument in a Trailer Camp (1944)