Capturing the 1934 San Francisco Strike
Dorothea Lange's Humanist Documentary Photography
Dorothea Lange is known for her humanist documentary photography of people and a nation in crisis during the Great Depression and World War II. While she traveled often, working as a photojournalist for government-sponsored programs, San Francisco was important in shaping Lange's democratic worldview and her influential documentary style.
In her early twenties, Lange and a friend decided to travel the world taking photographs. They ran out of money in San Francisco and Lange started working at a photo-developing counter and later opened an upscale portrait studio that she ran for sixteen years. When the Great Depression hit, she began seeing the social unrest in the streets below from the window of her studio. The first work she made that was concerned with social welfare was White Angel Breadline in 1933. Unsure of this new direction in her work, she hung it behind the counter at her portrait studio, to the expressed confusion of her customers.
"A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. I have only touched [life] with this wonderful democratic instrument, the camera." —Dorothea Lange
By 1934, in San Francisco, "there were Communists, mass meetings, and demonstrations...a good deal of social ferment." The present work was taken in August 1934, a few months after a longshoremen strike grew into a general strike of over 150,000 workers in San Francisco. The signs speak out against the unfair practices of "German bosses" who tried to break the strikes and the American press, who, under direction of the government, attempted to discredit strike leaders by branding them as Communists (some were, but most were not). The stern, immovable presence of the police officer, barricading the viewer from the crowd, tells of the violent clash ("Bloody Thursday") between protesters and police that had occurred on July 5th. To either side of the dark, tense, columnar officer, is an old man with a cane and a young girl looking directly at the viewer.
Other photographs by Lange from this time capture unemployment lines and soup kitchens, but others show the resiliency that persisted: members of the Salvation Army play instruments and sing; men, without work, sit together, talking in the bright midday sun; and, most importantly, as seen in the present lot, people strike to bring about greater equality in hard times. Though their situation was dire, Lange captured the individual's right to dignity, hope and communion. Her photographs came to embody not just the darkness of the era, but its optimism and strength as well.
From the strike depicted in this photograph, the longshoremen (and workers in other industries) received higher pay, lower weekly work hours and more fair hiring practices and the win was a catalyst for the industrial unionism that emerged in the 1930s.
We need not be seduced into evasion of it any more than we need be appalled by it into silence.…Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.