A hunk of lightning


Dear Artist,

In 1918, photographer’s apprentice Dorothea Lange set out from her home in New York City to travel the world with a friend. In San Francisco she was robbed, forcing her to abandon her plans and work as a photo finisher. Within a year Lange had established her own busy portrait studio in downtown San Francisco — she was twenty-three — but with the onset of the Great Depression, something happened. “The discrepancy between what I was working on in my portrait frames and what was going on in the street was more than I could assimilate,” said Lange. “I set myself a big problem. I would go down there… to see if I could grab a hunk of lightning.”


“White Angel Breadline”
photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1933

By accident or design and by paying attention, art and life can finger us for greatness. “White Angel Breadline” — Lange’s study of a man facing away from a crowded street in front of a soup kitchen — was noticed by local photographers and published. Soon Lange was offered a job with the Federal Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration. For five years she travelled the country on a small stipend and took pictures of sharecroppers, farmers and migrants. Her photos were published in free newspapers and drew attention to rural poverty while shaping an art form. “To me, beauty appears when one feels deeply,” said Lange. “And art is a by-product of an act of total attention.”

Lange’s 1936 photo of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a rain-soaked migrant farm camp became her most iconic image — and the embodiment of her style — an intimate, humanizing and masterfully composed work of art that also records a moment in history. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” Lange said, in retrospect. “I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”


“Migrant Mother”
photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1936



PS: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” (Dorothea Lange)

“Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon… We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is. The artist is a professional see-er.” (Dorothea Lange)

Esoterica: Dorothea Lange was born the daughter of second generation German immigrants on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. At age seven she contracted polio, which weakened her right leg and gave her a lifelong limp. “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” Lange said. “I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”

A link to Dyanna Taylor’s film, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, is here. Taylor, also an award-winning documentarian, is Lange’s granddaughter. Dorothea Lange passed away on October 11, 1965 in California at the age of seventy. “I think the visual life, the truly visual life, must be a great illumination.”



  1. This opened me to better understanding in several areas of my life this morning.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Great little letter….art being a by-product of total attention is a real gold nugget. With all the electronics, it’s a huge gift to realize that pulling back our attention and focusing on our work is actually helping the world by offering art. Thanks for the focus on Dorothea Lange, a genius.

    • I can’t imagine how you manage to bring us these true gems, Sara, but please keep doing it.
      Today’s gift brought my attention to a depth that met a need I didn’t anticipate.
      Thank you.

  3. Nancy Ericksen on

    The photos gave me goose bumps, like I get when a really good soprano sings that aria from Madame Butterfly. Ditto on that quote. Don’t you sometimes read about people like Lange and just wish you could sit down and talk to them for a while?

  4. Laura Turchi on

    Marisa Silver’s book Mary Coin is an imaginative re-telling of the story of the “Migrant Mother” photograph and the intersecting (fictionalized) life of Dorothea Lange with the family she photographed.

  5. Susan McCollum on

    What insight, courage and humanity; I want to learn more about This artist. Thank you for this wonderful letter.

  6. wonderful letter Sara. there is always a story to tell , I love the saying ‘ grab the lightning ” , or ride the emotion and tell the story. as artist’s , it is important to not just look , but see and feel what we are responding to visually , and emotionally . a story with no emotion will not be lasting , or memorable.

  7. As an artist for many years, this story tells me that if you want to take advantage of opportunities, you have to show up. You have to be in the moment and be aware of what is happening around you.
    We don’t live in a vacuum. Artists must reflect their time. You will notice great artists of the past, reflect their time.

    • Do you suppose the desperate mother and children huddled together actually benefitted from Lange’s photographs? That would indeed make it mutually advantageous.
      Thank you for your thought-inspiring writings, Sara.

      • Hi Jean,
        You might be interested to know that The Library of Congress titled the photo, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”
        Lange sent the photos to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. and to The San Francisco News, where they were immediately published. The News reported that thousands of migrant workers were starving in Nipomo and within days, the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. It was later reported that Thompson and her family had moved on by the time the aid arrived.
        In 1978, Florence Owens Thompson was identified as the subject — more than 40 years after the photos were taken. Thompson recounted that Lange had promised the photos would never be published. Her family said that Lange’s photos had made them feel both ashamed of the poverty they portrayed and also determined to never be as poor again. As Dorothea Lange was employed by the federal government at the time, her photos were in the public domain and she never directly received any royalties.
        At the end of her life, Florence Owens Thompson received letters and donations from the public for her medical care. She passed away in 1983 at age 80. In recent years, prints of Lange’s photos have sold at Sotheby’s for as much as $296,000.

  8. If there is still anyone who questions the value of photography as an art form over,say, painting, this is the photograph that establishes the power of the lens to portray the human spirit. This mother’s face is all about love and pain, self-sacrifice, never giving up. And Dorothea put it before the country and said “this is what’s going on out there”. Wonderful letter that reminds us what our role as artists is, to help others to see and take action.

  9. Looking back on the ever present hat from that era, I think people felt something was always falling on them. I think it was. Lange’s service to humanity is still going strong. Thanks, Sara.

  10. Paulette worrall on

    This article is so inspiring just what we should be doing with our lives ..inspiring each other to be better people. Last year under a burden for people without clean drinking water in Africa and India , I did 3 paintings of water carriers ,and through those raised money for an orphanage in Africa…I never felt as much joy over the sale of an other paintings!
    Thanks for the great story ….I love all her quotes…they are golden!

  11. A very telling and insightful story….have heard of this woman, but didn’t know much about her. She pet her heart guide her, and it showed. Thanks for that…..always inspiring!

  12. “Migrant Mother” is one of the few pieces I remember from an Art History class I took in college. The professor made a point of it to say that this image was posed… As a student, his comments made me stop and think, and changed my perspective a bit, to remember that what is captured/painted is part of the story the artist is telling, and to perhaps watch how I can be manipulated. I am glad to see a little more of the actual story here.

  13. Very inspiring Sarah,
    I’m struck by ‘art is a by-product of an act of total attention’. Lange really looked with her whole being. She was drawn to the migrant woman in her being, like something greater than both of their identies was organising this encounter. Langes looking illuminates us through space, time and self reflection. I look at and study that woman in a way that I would feel too self conscious to do so had I been present with her in the migrant farm camp. Thanks for sharing.
    Warmly, Lynn

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