Unlike modern day photographers, Dorothea Lange didn’t see her skills as a photographer as an art form. She wasn’t interested in entertaining the elite with her shots. Instead, Lange was primarily focused on the undeniable proof that photography could provide in the 20th century, she was determined to use her skills for social change above all else. Her photographs of an ailing San Francisco in the late 1930s show this endeavour.
Famed for her shot, known as Migrant Mother, which became the feature image of The Great Depression era, Lange recalls: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet, she said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding field and birds that the children killed.” Lange would go on to take seven exposures of the woman with the tight focus of a Mother’s anguish transforming the image into a damning reminder of the pain and heartbreak of financial struggle.
The work would add credence to the Lange’s cause for social change and would allow her the chance to fully explore her role as a photographer, finding opportunities within the Relief Organisations set up by the US Government to tackle the bleak landscape the Great Depression had left behind. Another focus for Lange was the plight of San Francisco’s workforce.
Here Lange accurately captures the falling hopes of a generation battered by twin devastations of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, which primarily affected migrant workers. Whether waiting in line at the unemployment office, organising unions, fighting the picket line or generally showing their dismay, the shots are beautifully poised in sadness and hopelessness.
Despite her refusal, it is hard to see Dorothea Lange’s shots as anything other than art.