White Angel Breadline, San Francisco
Negative 1932, print 1940s
Gelatin silver enlargement print
Purchased through gifts from the Class of 1955; 2005.14
White Angel Breadline marks a key turning point in the career of Dorothea Lange. Throughout the 1920s, Lange focused mainly on portraiture for a wealthy clientele. Following the onset of the Great Depression, she became increasingly aware of America’s failing system of distributive justice and turned to the poor, hungry, and depressed as her subject matter. Labor demonstrations and breadlines that formed in her San Francisco neighborhood first compelled Lange to work outside the studio. She took this photograph in 1932 on her first day in the streets, as part of an initial attempt at social realism. It marked her move away from the studio and toward a career as a documentary photographer. The so-called White Angel Breadline was named to honor its publicly anonymous founder. The breadline’s sponsor earned the sobriquet “White Angel” for her charity and generosity in the establishment of a food service in San Francisco to aid those unable to afford sustenance. In this image Lange focuses on one povertystricken man, his arms wrapped around a food cup and his hands clasped together almost as if in prayer. He is the one person in the picture facing the viewer, and his light-colored hat draws us to the face, cup, and hands. His obscured eyes, however, and the rails in front of him bar us from entering his world and deny any specific identification. He thus becomes a universal symbol for suffering and an iconic example of Lange’s extraordinary ability to convey a visual language of physical weariness. This photograph brought Lange cultural and popular acclaim and encouraged the Farm Security Administration to hire her as one of its photographers from 1935 to 1942.
Last Updated: 5/6/09