White Angel Breadline by Dorothea Lange

Art of the Week

Few have ever achieved the artistic and documentary goals of photography as successfully as Dorothea Lange.

Lange began her photography career in 1918, working in a photographic supply shop and shooting portraits of San Francisco’s upper crust. But as the Great Depression rose, Lange shifted her focus to documenting the unemployed and homeless, capturing one of the most pivotal eras in American history through starkly straightforward yet emotionally charged photographic studies.

Her first such study was White Angel Breadline, depicting a crowd of men with backs to the camera and a single figure leaning on a fence in the foreground, eyes covered by the brim of his hat, a tin cup sheltered near his body. The scene took place in 1933, outside of a soup kitchen run by a widow known as the “white angel.” The photograph captured the rising depression — its mass effect on the working class, the dejecting struggle for basic necessities and the resigned acceptance many had come to adopt — in unvarnished truth and led to Lange’s employment with the Farm Security Administration. In her new role, she traveled through rural America, photographing migrant laborers and sharecroppers, and her work was published widely.

She went on to catalog some of the country’s other historically pivotal moments in similar style and, while Lange’s heartbreakingly beautiful documentation of the Great Depression may be her best-known work, it is just one part of the retrospective currently on view at Frist Art Museum in the exhibition “Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing.”

“Dorothea Lange … is recognized as one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, and her insightful and compassionate work has exerted a profound influence on the development of modern documentary photography,” according to a press release from the museum. “In addition to presenting Lange’s iconic photographs from the Great Depression, the exhibition will feature works from her early years as a studio portraitist in San Francisco, along with images of the grim conditions of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, naval shipyard workers of different sexes and races contributing to the patriotic cause, and inequity in our judicial system in the 1950s.”

Upon her death in 1965, her husband Paul Taylor donated her archive of more than 20,000 negatives and 6,000 prints to the Oakland Museum of California. The Frist exhibition will be the fourth time this collection is presented — following its display in Oakland, at London’s Barbican and the Jeu de Paume in Paris. The works will be in Frist Museum’s upper galleries until May 27.

Frist Art Museum is located at 919 Broadway.

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