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Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression


Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford Illustrated by Sarah Green

Published in 2017 by Albert Whitman & Company

Grades 1-6

ISBN: 978-0-8075-1699-7

Book Review

“More than a photographer, she was a storyteller with a camera.” Best known to the world for her iconic photograph Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange’s life story is now shared in Carole Boston Weatherford’s latest picture book biography. Weatherford begins the book with the impact childhood polio had on Lange’s capacity for empathy throughout her life. Lange’s early days in school as a “so-so student” are depicted as well as her early career and her breakthrough photograph White Angel Breadline. Lange’s famed photographs captured the untold despair of poverty during the Great Depression with the mission to “show America to Americans”. With her lens, she framed men waiting outside a soup kitchen, men sleeping on sidewalks, ex-slaves in the South, and later during World War II, Japanese Americans in internment camps.  Sarah Green’s debut as a picture book illustrator is masterful. The grey and brown palette she uses during the Depression era scenes depicts the devastation of the times and counters the bright green and yellow pages that suggest hopeful moments in Lange’s life journey. At the end of the book, a two-page “About Dorothea Lange” section includes the Migrant Mother photograph from 1936 as well as an image of Lange camera-in-hand on top of her car where she liked to survey the landscape for stories to be photographed. The historical information in the backmatter complements the descriptive body of the text. Weatherford and Green have crafted a picture book sure to inspire young historians to learn more about the photographer whose images helped a nation see what was often neglected or ignored. They may also have inspired a new generation of photographers to pick up their cameras to encourage the nation not to look the other way.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Dare to See. Weatherford’s dedication at the back of the book is: “For all who dare to see”. This is likely inspired by Lange saying, “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually… I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves.” Before reading the book aloud, ask students what they think Weatherford’s dedication means. After reading the book, engage in a class discussion focused on how Lange dared America to see the devastation of the Great Depression through her focus on people experiencing exceedingly difficult life circumstances. What kinds of stories could be captured to help people see hardship today? Why do we need to be “dared” to see? What makes seeing difficult?

Carole Boston Weatherford Author Study. Gather other books by Carole Boston Weatherford such as Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne, Freedom in Congo Square, and Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.  Have students compare the books by discussing the historical subjects that Weatherford writes about. What do they think her motivations are as a writer? In what ways can they use her historical writing as mentor texts to support their own writing of historical narratives to align with your social studies curriculum? What is the responsibility of a biographer to document sources and quotations? You can also focus student attention on her sentence structure and use of fragments for effect, her use of sentence variety, and her powerful word choice to get readers to pay attention to particular moments of the texts.

Duet Model. Pair Carole Boston Weatherford’s book with Barb Rosenstock’s picture book biography Dorothea’s Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth. Two picture books on Dorothea Lange in two years! Have students compare and contrast the biographers’ as well as illustrators’ choices to depict the life and impact of Lange’s work. Where do the biographies overlap and in what ways do they differ? Discuss as a class why Lange’s work might be particularly apt today given this recent resurgence of interest in her work in the field of children’s literature.

Researching The Great Depression. Several events that characterized the Great Depression are included in the book such as the 1929 stock market crash that caused the Depression and the dust storms that drove laborers out of the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma. The backmatter provides further details about the Farm Security Administration and the Resettlement Administration. Go deeper into this study with your class by viewing primary sources such as images and film clips as well as timelines, facts, and summaries of the era from sources such as, United States History, and U.S Consider building a multi-genre as well as multimodal text set that helps students explore the era through different kinds of texts such as Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, the graphic novel Snow White by Matt Phelan, and Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool . Support students to generate questions they have about the era from their initial research and to go further in their research to answer some of their questions. Consider asking families if they have relatives or connections that were alive during the Depression era that could talk to the class about their memories and experiences of that time period.

Photography: Then and Now. Draw students’ attention to the illustrations of Lange using her camera, most notably the way she got on top of her car to survey the landscape. Encourage students to share what they notice about her camera. How is her camera similar to and different from cameras today? Research with the class the process of creating a photograph during Lange’s lifetime. Khan Academy has a short introduction to photography that includes an Eastman Kodak advertisement for a Brownie camera for boys and girls. A simple Google image search of cameras in the 1900s will yield you countless images to have students share their noticings. Introduce students to the concept of dark rooms and photographic film. Compare Dorothea Lange’s photographs with the work of other photographers such as Ansel Adams and the ways his photography impacted conservation. Discuss with students photography of today including smartphone cameras and the incredible influence social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have on people today. If devices are available, have students take their own photographs by playing with different concepts such as perspective, framing, and light. Have students share the photos they took by discussing the choices they made as photographers.

Compare and Contrast: Visual Literacy. Consider pairing Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph Migrant Mother with another iconic photograph such as A Great Day in Harlem featured in the book Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph.  Have students apply their visual literacy skills to discuss the photographers’ choices to tell the story of people from a particular time at a particular place.

Dorothea Lange/ Humans of New York Duet Viewing. Introduce your students to the Humans of New York website created by photographer and storyteller-extraordinaire, Brandon Stanton.  A simple Google search for Humans of New York posts with children can help you find select stories you may want to share with your class. Read about Brandon Stanton’s process as a photographer and what his initial goals were with the site. Search for Humans of New York on Facebook and see how many million followers there are of the site on that platform. Support students to draw comparisons between the work Brandon Stanton does today and Dorothea Lange’s work from the 1930s and 40s. What role does photography play in documenting the human experience? In what ways does Brandon Stanton embrace the model of “daring” the public to see both national and international stories of human lives? In what ways has technology today enabled Stanton’s photographs to reach a wider audience more immediately? How does that immediacy compare to the lasting impact of Lange’s work? Who do students think is more influential and why? Support your class to engage in their own “PhotoVoice” project to impact people’s thinking about the human experience in their community. One way to do this is to have students interview family members or school community members during drop off and pick-up. Discuss the role of ethics in seeking permission from the people you photograph.

Using Color to Evoke Feelings. Support students to closely read the illustrations by Sarah Green paying particular attention to her use of color to evoke the feelings that Lange experienced as well as the sentiment of the Depression era. Have students think about their use of colors to evoke both feelings of joy as well as complicated and difficult feelings. Encourage students to look back at their writing and drawing from the year and to use color to help their viewers understand the tone, mood, or feelings they experienced. Send students off to the classroom library to find the work of other illustrators that use color to evoke feelings. For some examples from The Classroom Bookshelf see our entries for: Maybe Something Beautiful, The Noisy Paint Box, Extra Yarn, Sky Color, The Great Big Green,  The Day the Crayons Quit, and Green. Discuss the role that color plays in the illustrations, plotline, characterization, setting, and theme. What aspects of color are explored in each book? Following this immersion in picture books about color, invite your students to compose and illustrate their own color-inspired stories. Refer to these text selections throughout the year in your individual conferences with writers about their illustrations or as you support the whole class to illustrate with intentionality.

Campaign for Empathy. Dorothea Lange’s photography demonstrated her own empathy for the human condition during the Great Depression and later during World War II. As described at the end of the book, her famed photograph, Migrant Mother, also inspired the American government to rush tons of food to the migrant camp she photographed–an act that demonstrated the empathy of leaders to care for the people of their country that were suffering. Use Weatherford’s book as a core text to launch a campaign for empathy in your classroom or school. Encourage students to recognize their own feelings and to better understand the feelings of others. Discuss with the class ways they can do that including using language frames that show others they care. Also, discuss when empathy is hard, such as on the playground, and why it is important.

Critical Literacy.

Who Was the ‘Migrant Mother’? At the end of the book, Weatherford describes thirty-two year-old Florence Owens Thompson, a full-blooded Cherokee who became the face of the Great Depression as the Migrant Mother. But, Weatherford does not discuss in the text or in the backmatter, the ways in which Lange benefitted from the success and fame of that photograph while Thompson remained in poverty. Using the links below, investigate the controversy of the image, including why Thompson wanted to remain nameless for fear of shaming her family through the photograph. Encourage students to discuss the complexity of issues like power, perspective, and positioning that the Migrant Mother photograph created.  

Women in Photography: Interrogating the International Photography Hall of Fame. The backmatter explains that Lange was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984. Share with your class the Hall of Fame Inductees and support them to notice how many women have been inducted. Explore possibilities for why the ratio of men to women is so different and consider writing a letter as a shared writing exercise to the Hall of Fame advocating that they campaign to correct the imbalance of representation.

Further Investigation

Online Resources

Carole Boston Weatherford’s Site

Sarah Green’s Site

Library of Congress Images ‘Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother’

National Public Radio’s Segment on Dorothea Lange: ‘Daring to Look’

Eyewitness History Migrant Mother

PBS: Dorothea Lange, The Dustbowl

PBS The Story of Migrant Mother

The History Place, Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange’s Photographs, The Getty Museum’s-documentary-photographs/

PBS and American Masters Film: Dorothea Lange, Grab a Hunk of Lightning

Humans of New York Site


Rosenstock, B. (2016). Dorothea’s eyes: Dorothea Lange photographs the truth. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.

Weatherford, C. B. (2006). Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her people to freedom. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Weatherford, C.B. (2008). Before John was a jazz giant. Henry Holt.

Weatherford, C.B. (2008). Becoming Billie Holiday. Wordsong.

Weatherford, C.B. (2014). Sugar Hill: Harlem’s historic neighborhood. Albert Whitman and Co.

Weatherford, C.B. (2015). You can fly: The Tuskegee airmen. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Weatherford, C.B. (2015). Voice of freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The spirit of the civil rights movement.  Candlewick Press.

Weatherford, C.B. (2016). Freedom in Congo Square. Little bee books.

Weatherford, C.B. (2017). The legendary Miss Lena Horne. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.


Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.