Closer Readings Commentary

Dorothea Lange: “Grab a Hunk of Lightning”

Elizabeth Partridge is the author of the companion volume, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, (Chronicle Books). She is also author of the children's biography, Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange, (Viking Children's Books, Grades 4–8).

To live a visual life is a tremendous undertaking. I have only touched it, just touched it." Dorothea Lange

In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange was driving home after a month on the road, photographing the Dust Bowl refugees struggling to survive in California. Lange was worked out, tired to the bone. But when she saw a sign marked "Pea Pickers Camp," she instinctively pulled in and took a series of photographs of a woman sheltering under a lean-to tarp with her children. One of these images, Migrant Mother, was reproduced in magazines and newspapers across the country and quickly became the icon of the Great Depression. Today the photo is considered one of the greatest images of the twentieth century and was selected as one of the works in NEH’s Picturing America portfolio.

The film

On Friday August 29th, PBS's American Masters will air Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, a two-hour documentary on the life and work of this groundbreaking photographer.

Beginning with her early days running a portrait studio that catered to wealthy San Franciscans, the film follows Lange's government work during the Great Depression and Japanese American internment during World War II. It chronicles her insightful photography in the Middle East and Asia, through her final retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1965.

Directed and narrated by Lange's granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, Grab a Hunk of Lightning explores the challenges Lange faced balancing her passion for photography and her love of her family.

Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning will stream free for four years on the American Masters' website.

Great Depression

"Documentary photography records the social scene of our time. It mirrors the present and documents for the future." Dorothea Lange

When Dorothea Lange took Migrant Mother, she was working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a program set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to publicize the plight of families devastated by the Great Depression.

Lange agreed with the goals of the FSA and worked hard to show the dignity and pride of the migrants, despite the overwhelming hardships they faced. Her images are both beautiful and heartbreaking, and take on new significance with the passage of time.

Japanese American internment

"This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?" Dorothea Lange

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lange was asked to work for the government again, photographing the internment of the Japanese and Japanese Americans. Though Lange had been in agreement with the goals of the FSA, this time she was deeply opposed to the government's actions. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) wanted to show how orderly and humane the process was, but Lange was horrified by the suspension of civil liberties for the internees. Nevertheless she took on the job. For her own reasons, she felt it was vitally important to provide detailed photo documentation of the internment. Fired by the military during the war, her photographs were impounded and remained unseen by Americans for many years.

Educational materials

PBS's American Masters website has a number of video clips from the film, as well as additional videos made by the director. Interviews with Lange, scholarly commentary, and narration by Dyanna Taylor, Lange's granddaughter, all provide important viewpoints for considering her work. Both the film and short, class-friendly clips encourage students to develop visual literacy, and to deepen their understanding of photographs as primary documents. Here are some of the key sections:

  • Documenting the Dust Bowl Exodus
  • Lange’s Start in Photography
  • Eye on The Great Depression and Sharecropping
  • Lange’s MoMA Exhibition
  • Dorothea Lange Biography with Photo Gallery

(Note: There will be several more segments added to the website in the next couple weeks including one on Migrant Mother, as well as one on the Japanese American internment.)

The Common Core connection

Visual literacy, a critical 21st-century skill, is specifically focused on in the Common Core in the following CCSS standards:

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7: "Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts."
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words."
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6: "Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text."

Inspired the career of Lange as presented in the film, teachers can develop their own student activities and lesson plans starting with the resources on the American Masters site and this blog.