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White Angel Breadline

© The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor.

Dorothy Lange
White Angel Breadline, 1934, printed c. 1945
Gelatin silver print
Puchased 2005

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.