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In Dorothea Lange’s Photos, Wisps of ‘Great Recession’

America's understanding of the Great Depression has, in large part, been shaped by the photography of Dorothea Lange. With the nation once again steeped in financial turmoil, Lange's images have taken on new relevance. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight: a woman who used her camera to document the struggles of a nation.

    Jeffrey Brown has that story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    As we live through what's been called the great recession, it is, of course, the Great Depression of the 1930s that we look to, compare with, and fear repeating.

    Some of our understanding of that period, our public memory of what life was like comes through photographs of the jobless, the daily struggles of the downtrodden. Some, like "Migrant Mother," have become iconic images, part of our shared history. It and the other photos we have just shown were taken by a woman who is herself the subject of a new biography titled "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits."

    Its author is Linda Gordon, professor of history at New York University.

    Welcome to you.

    LINDA GORDON, author, "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits": Thank you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Was it the era or the person that first grabbed you, that made you want to tackle this?

  • LINDA GORDON:

    It was many eras, because Lange just went through so many important things about American history in the 20th century, from going to school on the Lower East Side with immigrants, to the Depression, through World War II, through the Cold War.

    But, you know, in the process, I feel like Lange took over. She is a very, very strong personality. And she sort of stepped into the driver's seat.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She was, in some ways, an unlikely character to become what we think of this chronicler of misfortune. She herself was fairly well-off, right?

  • LINDA GORDON:

    Well, she certainly came from the typically middle-class family, although her parents got divorced. And that was an experience which reduced their class status. But, then, in San Francisco, she had a portrait studio that catered to the very wealthy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She became a portrait photographer for well-to-do people in San Francisco. Then she went to work for the Farm Security Administration. Now, help people — remind people. What was the mission? This was a federal agency.

  • LINDA GORDON:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What was the mission? And how did she see her mission?

  • LINDA GORDON:

    She was brought into a project, the purpose of which was to create pictures of what the Depression was doing to farm people, farm workers, a most unlikely candidate. She was always a city girl, never lived on a farm.

    But she identified with that mission totally. She identified very strongly with Franklin Roosevelt. She was a true New Dealer. Also important, she and Franklin Roosevelt were both polio victims, which certainly increased her intensity.

    But it's also important to remember that this was an era of a great deal of federal support for the arts. And it produced a phenomenal amount of the public art that we still appreciate today.

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