On Friday, the U.S. unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent, the worst since the Great Depression, when a quarter of the workforce was adrift. Food banks across the country are seeing lines of cars that have stretch longer than a mile. Where people assemble up on foot, the lines are dotted with six-foot gaps.
These scenes look completely different from the one in the famous Dorothea Lange photo, “White Angel Breadline” and other images from that chapter of our history books. And yet, with each passing week of the coronavirus pandemic, those images from the past feel more and more like the present.
“There’s obviously no social distancing happening, but what comes through in ‘White Angel Breadline’ is the man’s sense of isolation, even as he’s in a crowd,” said Drew Johnson, who curates Lange’s archive at the Oakland Museum. “It captures the multitude of people in the middle of a crisis, doing the best they can.”
The story behind the photographer feels familiar, too. If Lange herself hadn’t been impacted by the severe economic fallout, she may never have taken this photo or become a famous documentary photographer. At the time, her work was taking studio portraits of San Francisco artists and families. The imploding economy left Lange with few clients and ample free time she wasn’t accustomed to. Like many today, she felt a restless urge to do something. She recalled looking out her window and watching men ambling around, looking just as lost as she felt.
“The discrepancy between what I was working on in the printing frames and what was going on in the streets was more than I could assimilate,” she remembered.
So on that day in 1933, accompanied by her brother and “Snappie,” her bulky Graflex camera, she went out. She found herself near the waterfront, where she saw the men crowding around a soup kitchen. It was run by a wealthy widow named Lois Jordan, who fed hundreds of thousands during the Depression and was known affectionately as the “White Angel.”
The San Francisco Call described the scene: “Seamen without ships, longshoremen with no cargo to load, railroad men out of jobs, carpenters with nothing to build . . . penniless and friendless in a big city, they have been fed, clothed and mothered by Mother Jordan.”
As Lange watched the men jostle for position, “I can only say I knew I was looking at something,” she later said, adding: “Sometimes you have an inner sense that you have encompassed the thing.”
Later in her career, Lange was known to talk with her subjects for 30 minutes before pulling out her camera. She saw her work as a collaboration between herself and the people in her images. But on her first day, she snapped three photos of the man in the dirty fedora, leaned over his tin cup. Then she fled.
The man’s name and story were never discovered, even as his photograph became world famous. Although the photo shows only white men and was taken in California, which wasn’t hit as hard as other states, it came to represent what the Great Depression felt like. It launched Lange on the path to becoming the woman who would, only three years later, take one of the most famous photographs in history: “Migrant Mother.”
Yet when Lange hung “White Angel Breadline” on the wall of her studio, the style of documentary photography she and others were beginning to pioneer was still relatively obscure. Visitors and clients looked confused when they saw it, asking her what it was and what she expected to do with it.
“That was a question I couldn’t answer,” she said. “But I knew my picture was on my wall, and I knew that it was worth doing.”
Today, the image can almost always be found alongside descriptions of the Great Depression, in textbooks, documentaries and art galleries. The original film is housed at the Oakland Museum and a print is traveling around the world within an exhibition of Lange’s work.
The curators who put the exhibition together were worried, at first, that visitors wouldn’t make connections between Lange’s images and the country’s modern struggles. But when it opened in 2017, museum-goers became so emotional looking at the photographs that the Oakland Museum started keeping tissue boxes beside them.
Now, the museum has been closed for nearly two months. Its administration is hoping government relief and community support will keep them afloat, so that no staff member ends up in a line somewhere, waiting for food.
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