© The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor. |
White Angel Breadline, 1934, printed c. 1945
Gelatin silver print
Dorothea Lange’s White Angel Breadline (1934), acquired by the National Gallery of Canada
in 2005, and Migrant Mother (1936), acquired in 1995, are quintessential Depression Era
images. They also, however, occupy a place in a larger history of photographic image-making
that turns our attention to the circumstances of everyday, as opposed to ideal, life. What is
striking about White Angel Breadline is the elegant manner in which Lange has balanced the
narrative of her image with its formal construction. Displaying a masterful ability to organize
complex space, she focuses the viewer’s gaze on just one individual in the crowded pen of
unemployed men lining up for food. This is the figure of a man who clutches a tin cup, and
who appears from the evidence of his worn clothes and dishevelled appearance to have been
down and out for some time. Leaning on one of the wooden railings that diagonally crosses
the lower quarter of the picture, he faces forward, his back to the rest of the crowd, lost in
thought. His eyes shielded from the camera’s view by the brim of his battered hat, he emerges
from this dark sea of men by virtue of his counter-positioning. His presence is emphasized
by the light that falls on the edges and brim of his hat, on his tin mug and on his clasped hands.
By spotlighting these telling details, and by composing the principal character slightly left
of centre and establishing strong tensions between the vertical and diagonal elements, Lange
has created an image that is theatrical in presentation and engaging in terms of its content.
As a number of art historians have pointed out, Lange achieved a brilliant balance between a
collective portrait of humanity and one of an individual.
In the early thirties, when the force of the economic depression that was hitting ordinary
citizens became increasingly visible, Lange – a trained portrait studio photographer – took to
the streets with her camera for the first time, documenting the desperate lines of the jobless
and the destitute. By 1934, with tens of millions of unemployed, cities became refuges for jobhunting,
displaced people. In the winter of 1932 or 1933, Lange could see from her studio a
soup kitchen that had been established by a wealthy San Francisco woman to feed the destitute.
It was thus from up close that she witnessed the human drama that was unfolding around
her on a daily basis.