Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans: Photographers of the Great Depression

By Peter Olsen

In 1935 as part of his “New Deal” package, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The purpose of this federal agency was to aid poor rural Americans who were uprooted from their farms during the Great Depression, a time when drought and over-farming had turned vast areas of the Midwest into a huge dust bowl. The FSA is famous for its influential publicity program that portrayed compelling and poignant images of poverty-stricken people and places. The FSA used these photographs to help justify and document federal aid by highlighting the work they were doing, the challenges of rural poverty, and American rural life in general. The main goal was to show Americans in a desperate situation and enlist support for government programs of grants, loans, and resettlement money to displaced farmers (Hirsch 233-234). Although the FSA photography project has been viewed by some as propagandistic, it is also largely responsible for creating the iconic images that come to mind when one thinks of the 1930s Depression Era. “In fact, he and his colleagues invented the new form of social documentary, eloquently blending artistry and propaganda to create what is arguably one of the most valuable records of American life” (Pricola).

The FSA photography group carried out their assignments having been trained in the official FSA “documentary” style, with the intent “to dramatize real subjects in their actual settings, linking them to specific cultural messages so that viewers would formulate a favorable response to the new government programs” (Hirsch 235). Overall, rural people were respectfully portrayed with dignity and shown to be actively trying to improve their predicament, implying that that they deserved better. “Camera angles and distance tended to follow the normal eye-level standards, giving a sense of cooperation and social equality, underlining the idea that these were good people experiencing hard times” (Hirsch 235). Heart-wrenching photographs of women, children, and families in dire circumstances played on people’s sympathies – after all, who wouldn’t pity a poor deprived child? The images were published in popular magazines and newspapers where they would be sure to be seen by the general public. Thus, even the increasingly urban population would be made aware of the plight of the rural farmers, migrant workers, and sharecroppers. The dilemma of seeing other families needlessly suffering would present a challenge to comfortable middle-class citizens and encourage them to do something about it, which in this case meant embracing government-sponsored welfare programs.

Among the photographers commissioned by the federal government were Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Lange and Evans were technically expert photographers whose images displayed sharp focus, clarity, and precision. Both Lange and Evans became well known for their photo graphs of rural poverty during the Great Depression. The mission given to Lange and Evans along with the other photographers was to capture the human side of the pressing social and economic concerns of the day, bringing them to the attention of the nation. The sheer number of photographs taken by the FSA gave the impression that such situations were widespread, presenting a looming threat to American family life everywhere. The faces, postures, and clothing of people profiled in these photographs overwhelmingly show them as worried, sad, ragged, and broke. No one smiles, and dirt- smudged children – innocent victims – stand barefoot in the dust. While documenting the signs of the times, these images depicted real people with real lives. Lange produced more subjective images based on feelings and impressions, as compared to Evans’ objective style w hich was undistorted by emotion  or personal opinion.

Lange Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965 ) is known as a “photographer of people” for her visual interpretations of the human condition. Lange had a compassionate eye and a consciousness for social justice. Lange’s photographs documented the misery and despair suffered during the Great Depression in an effort to help the people by bringing attention to their situation. Her photographs are full of raw emotion that brings home the sobering realities of the Depression. They elicit feelings of empathy and enable viewers to identify with the subject. Even though Lange photographed what she saw, her images were transformed by her personal vision. The viewer can sense the presence of an author striving to make a statement. For example, her “Migrant Mother” image is one of a series of photographs that Lange made outside a pea-pickers camp in Nipomo, California. Lange zoomed in on the mother while keeping the children’s faces hidden, and leaving her other children out of the picture completely. This serves to emphasize the mother’s facial expression, showing both the strength and the concern of a mother in distress. Perhaps her stare indicates a resolute determination to overcome poverty as strongly as it suggests a resignation to it. Roy Stryker, head of the FSA photographic project, declared, “To me it was THE picture of Farm Security. She has all the suffering of mankind in her, but all the perseverance too” (Nordeman). “Migrant Mother” captured in a single photograph the desperation of the times. This powerful image won the heart of the public and became one of the most famous photographs in American history. Unlike Evans, Lange used a Graflex 4×5 camera which allowed her to get closer to her subject. She mostly took photographs of her subject as they were looking away from the camera. Her insightful photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression.

 Walker Evans

Walker Evans (1903-1975) did most of his photographic work for the FSA while traveling from the coal country of West Virginia and Pennsylvania into the southern states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Unlike Lange who focused mostly on people, Evans’ photographs of places are rich in details of daily life. Besides portraiture, some of his most prominent themes were architecture. He photographed storefronts, barbershops, rural homes, shop windows, sidewalk displays, roadside stands, street scenes, posters and signs. His work is significant because it documented 1930s America in vivid detail, capturing objects precisely as they were. Even his portraits lack the emotional expression of Lange’s because he remained detached from the images he was recording, acting as an impartial observer. Evans used a large format 8×10 view camera. This camera is known to create the appearance of a dispassionate viewpoint, which helped with the type of subjects that Evans shot. Evans took mostly straight-on shots of his human subjects so they were looking directly at the camera. Evans veered from the FSA’s mission of focusing on a better future for the rural poor by photographing his subjects exactly as they were in the present, rather than hinting at what they might become if only they had the opportunity. “The images, unveiled by sentimentality, are possessed by the photographer’s puritanical objectivity mixed with an edge of pessimism” (Hirsh 236). In addition, his images show that architecture and material objects can be as representative of a people as the people themselves. “Evans found in these subjects an authentic expression of what was most American about America, and his lasting achievement was to express that sense of indigenous national character in his photographs” (Met). As documentary images, his detailed portrayals of authentic everyday artifacts are unparalleled in their realism and serve to preserve an era in time.

Ironically, although people were led to believe that the government cared about the subjects of these photographs since they spent the time and effort to document their situation, the subjects themselves didn’t always see it that way. Years later, Troy Owens, son of “Migrant Mother” Florence Owens Thompson, said, “That photo may well have saved some peoples’ lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn’t save ours” (Stones). Charles Burroughs, whose parents were photographed by Evans, recalls, “They never had a chance to buy a new truck. They never had a chance to buy a fridge. They never had a chance to buy a washing machine. They never had a chance” (Whitford). So it would seem that the living conditions of these people weren’t necessarily improved as the FSA had promised. Nevertheless, “Through the work of Lange and Evans, we are provided a window into the past, a window into the lives of people whose names we may never know, but whose images will be forever remembered” (Ludlow). Their photographs will always be inspiring evidence of the persevering American spirit, and valuable studies of Americana to be treasured for generations to come.

Works Cited:

Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light, A Social History of Photography. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Ludlow1897. “Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans – Photography of the Great Depression.” YouTube. May 1, 2009.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Walker Evans: Special Exhibitions.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. February 1- May 14, 2000.

Meyer, Chris. “The FSA Photographs: Information, or Propaganda?” WR: Journal of the Arts & Sciences Writing Program. Boston University: Issue 1, 2008-2009, p. 21-28.

Nordeman , Landon. “Walker Evans Revolutionizes Documentary Photography.” American Studies. University of Virginia: February 28, 2007.

Pricola, Jennifer. “Age of Lost Innocence: Photographs of Childhood Realities and Adult Fears During the Depression.” American Studies. University of Virginia: Summer 2003.

Stones, Michael. “The Other Migrant Mother.” Open Photography Forums.

Whitford, David. “The Most Famous Story We Never Told.” Fortune Magazine. September 19, 2005.

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