"I saw something..."
The White Angel
San Francisco's Embarcadero at Filbert Street (today).
There was a real “White Angel” behind the breadline that served the needy men photographed by Dorothea Lange. She was a widow named Lois Jordan. Mrs. Jordan, who gave herself the name White Angel, established a soup kitchen during the Great Depression to feed those who were unemployed and destitute. Relying solely on donations, she managed to supply meals to more than one million men over a three-year period.
Click the Skid Row icon in the media player (above)
Jordan’s soup kitchen occupied a junk-filled lot in San Francisco located on the Embarcadero near Filbert Street. This area was known as the White Angel Jungle. The Jungle was not far from Lange’s studio. As she began to change direction from portrait to documentary photography, Lange focused her lens on the poignant scenes just beyond her window. White Angel Breadline is the result of her first day’s work to document Depression-era San Francisco. Decades later, Lange recalled: “[White Angel Breadline] is my most famed photograph. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, ‘Oh, don't go there.’ It was the first day that I ever made a photograph on the street.”
Dorothea Lange was a hard-working mother of two boys in 1932, the year she took the now-famous photograph White Angel Breadline. Her successful business as a portrait photographer of San Francisco’s wealthy families was feeling the pinch of America’s deepening economic crisis. Her unsteady marriage to artist Maynard Dixon grew even rockier as galleries closed and the demand for his paintings dried up. Lange and Dixon agreed to separate, and with her new freedom came a gradual transition: She decided to use her camera not only to capture the likenesses of her subjects, but also to tell their stories.
Dorothea Lange. Employment Agency, San Francisco. 1937.
Taking her brother Martin along for support, Lange explored the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, which were lined with the homeless, hungry, and unemployed. She was concerned that she would anger her subjects by invading their privacy. She was worried that her large camera would frighten them away, that her process would be too slow, and that she would be accused of violating their dignity. But no one seemed aware of her. Not even the man with the tin cup, who faced away from the others on the White Angel Breadline. Hunched over the railing with his hat shielding his haggard face, he seemed lost. Lange was a newcomer to street photography but not to seizing the moment: “… I saw something, and I encompassed it, and I had it.”
Click the White Angel Breadline icon in the media player (above)
What Lange “had” was a disturbing but beautiful image that would come to represent the face of the Great Depression: The weariness indicated by the man’s posture, the emptiness of his cup, his individuality obscured by the low brim of his hat, and his isolation from others on the breadline, all adding up to a poignant yet respectful portrait of hopelessness and despair.
“I had made some photographs of the state [of] people, in an area of San Francisco which revealed how deep the depression was. It was at that time beginning to cut very deep. This is a long process. It doesn't happen overnight. Life, for people, begins to crumble on the edges; they don't realize it….”
—Dorothea Lange, interview, 1964
The stock market crash of October 1929 set off a series of catastrophic events that plunged the country into an economic collapse known as the Great Depression. As the 1930s began, banks failed, businesses folded, and workers were laid off in droves. To make matters worse, the country suffered one of the worst droughts in history. Farmers from Virginia to Oklahoma saw their crops wither and die. By the middle of the decade, many abandoned their stricken land and headed west to California, where they worked as migrant laborers in an effort to feed their families.
Click the Migrant Family icon in the media player (above)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who soundly beat Herbert Hoover in the presidential race of 1932, promised the country a “New Deal.” He developed government programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration, which put people back to work and spurred growth. With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, the Great Depression became a bitter memory and the war effort took center stage.
Ironically, had the Depression not occurred, Dorothea Lange might never have become a noted photographer. Like the songs of Woody Guthrie and the writings of John Steinbeck, her images from that time captured the struggles of ordinary people who encountered extraordinary hardship and brought their plight to the attention of the American public.
Dorothea Lange (detail). Photo by Rondal Partridge, 1936
Having survived a bout with polio as a child and endured the painful separation of her parents at age 12, Dorothea Lange (born Dorothea Nutzhorn) struck out on her own in 1919. She left her native New Jersey for an adventure around the world but only made it as far as California, where she settled and opened a photography studio. She was skilled behind the camera and in her dealings with clients. It was this ability to connect with people that enabled her to successfully leap from portrait to documentary photographer in the 1930s.
In that decade, Lange divorced her first husband, artist Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons, and married Paul Taylor, an economist who became an advocate for farm workers during the Depression. Taylor secured a job with one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Resettlement Administration, later known as Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange accompanied him in the field and soon received a job of her own, as photographer for the FSA. The images she made from the mid-1930s to 1940—including the famous Migrant Mother—are now considered icons of American culture.
After the attack on Peal Harbor, Lange documented the government-mandated evacuation of Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. She continued to represent the American struggle in her pictures until her death in 1965. White Angel Breadline—her first documentary image—is typical of Lange’s work, in that it makes us see the big picture—not just the sad state of a man with a tin cup, but the desperate state of a nation.