Depression-era photography

September 17, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

I’m taking photography lessons from an American photographer. I’m into my third week and haven’t been kicked out yet. You may wonder: how do I take lessons when I’m in Australia and he’s in the US? The wonders of email – he sends me specially designed modules to work through, complete with photographic assignments. I then send him my assignment photos and he critiques. Some of it is tough going for me because it’s going back to basics and I want to get my teeth into advanced stuff. One assignment that’s coming up (and I’m fearing it) is to sit with my beloved Nikon D40 and change the settings over and over again without looking. So when that once in a lifetime shot comes along, I won’t have to fiddle with ISO, white balance and so on. I’ll be ready to go. Yeah, right, good luck to me!

Anyway, onto today’s post. Part of my work with this photographer is to study the work of well-known photographers. He gave me a list of names and off I went finding the photos and researching their lives. One of the photographers on the list was Dorothea Lange. To be honest I hadn’t heard of her. Shame on me! I now know she was a very influential US photographer who is best known for her Depression-era photographs. I particularly like the drama, light and shade that black and white photos are capable of capturing. And so I was stunned by her work. No doubt I’m decades behind everyone else who have known and loved Lange’s work. Well, better late than never as they say.

Check out these photos – superb. She had an incredible ability to humanise the sadness  and struggle of the Depression-era; to connect faces to untold tragedies. And you know: as we navigate the global financial hissy fit, it puts things in perspective when you spend time looking at photos from a period of deep financial and family crisis in American and world history.

Migrant mother 1936. Image credit – Wikipedia

Photo credit: National Archives

This is an incredible photo from 1940 and taken in Kern County, California. The young woman was a migratory worker who, the day before the photo was taken, had travelled with her husband 35 miles each way to pick peas. They both worked five hours a day and earned US$2.25. Mmmmmm…think about that for a moment. These days we have a hissy fit if we’re not paid mega bucks, with bonuses, company cars and parking spaces and so on. But this young woman travelled (possibly walked) 70 miles to pick peas and earn $2.25 (I must find out what that amount would have bought in 1940 – anyone know?). Just look at her face: what do you see? Hardship? Poverty?

Photo credit: National Archives.

This photo was taken in 1933 and is called White Angel Breadline. It’s probably her most famous photo. A San Francisco widow, Lois Jordan, was known as the White Angel. She established a soup kitchen to feed the needy and hungry and this image was Lange’s first photograph actually taken on the street during the Great Depression.

Photo credit: Online Archive of California.

Taken in 1937 when a Government census showed that 10 million people were unemployed. 22 States started paying unemployment compensation and this photo shows a line of men waiting to register on the first day payments were paid out at Social Security Office. By taking this photo from a height, looking down on the snaking line, it really emphasizes the despair these men must have been feeling. The feet of other people you can see just at the top of the photo are intriguing – are these people ready to join the line? Have they accompanied the men to the Social Security Office for moral support?

I have saved the most haunting for last:

Photo credit: Online Archive of California.

This is a photo of a homeless man sleeping in a parking lot in San Francisco c.1934. Yeegads, just imagine how bad the Great Depression must have been that people were forced to sleep like this.

So as we grumble and moan about the GFC and how it’s stopping us eating out weekly at our favourite restaurant or stopping us getting a pay rise – well, let’s thank our lucky stars that we are not struggling and suffering as deeply some of the people in these powerfully emotional photos taken by Dorothea Lange.

Entry filed under: Photography. Tags: , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. creativespark  |  September 17, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Wow. Humbling. Her skill as a photographer is humbling (Migrant Mother and White Angel Breadline are both incredibly tricky shutter speed puzzles even with modern cameras… imagine it with a 1930s model) and so very, very, very humbling in its subject matter.


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