Portraying the Past Through Photography in Walker Evans' Allie Mae Burroughs and Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother

Categories: Literature

Historical events are a synonym of transformation. During the 20th century, revolutions, wars, and crisis were taking place all around the world. The United States was not an exception. The Great Depression in 1929 marked the history of the nation. This major event opened the door to new ideas and exploration of fields, such as photography. Photographic movements like the FSA flourished after this occurrence. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were some of the photographers that participated in these. Walker Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother successfully portray the effects in a society of historical events, such as the Depression, their influence in photography and the differences between the photographer’s decisions in how to depict history.

The Great Depression of 1929 was a significant event that completely changed the American life. The stock market crashed “marking the end of six years of unparalleled prosperity for most sectors of the American economy.”l This economic catastrophe had severe social and cultural effects on the American life.

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There were mass migrations, a rapid rise in the crime rate, an absence of health care, unconventional ways for obtaining economic resources, lack of education, and a huge change in demographics in general. 2 Seeing that all these changes were taking place and were becoming the center of society’s life, a need for portraying the current situation in the nation rose and photography was the best approach to do it. 

Based on this desire to represent people’s situation after the crisis, some photographic institutions were born.

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One of them was the Farm Security Administration. The FSA initiated a project under Roy Stryker to “gather photographic evidence of the agency’s good works and transmit these images to the press.” 3 The primary goal of the project was to send photographers all around the country to capture pictures that said Depression, but that were not actually about the financial crisis in Wall Street or strikes or anything similar. The photographs were supposed to be documentary photographs that revolved around “emotionally persuasive, stylized depiction of symbolic images” 4 and that focused more on life in small towns after the catastrophe. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were two of the photographers that engaged in this project.

Walker Evans was the best photographer in the FSA and was as well the progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography. It has been said that Evans “had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art.” 5 During his time at the FSA Evans seek multiple subjects that implied a story about life and reflected the conditions of the time as he did in his photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs.

On the other hand, Dorothea Lange had a different view while working for the FSA. Lange considered herself as a documentary photographer that was “committed to a direct, unmanipulated recording of contemporary events.” Through her photographs, Dorothea wanted to be able to foster social justice and to portray the social inequality as a consequence of the great depression. Her photograph Migrant Mother became the most famous documentary photography of the 1930s and successfully achieved to describe the conditions of the American society at the time.

Allie Mae Burroughs is a simple yet powerful photograph. It is a black and white photograph that portrays a sharecropper’s wife, but only her upper torso and face, with no background or any other object. At first glance, it is hard to see how it can be a depiction of the effects of the depression. But, after knowing the background history of the FSA and observing the photograph, everything starts to become clear. The face of Allie says it all. She is directly looking at the camera but acts as if it was not there. After taking a close look, it can be noticed that Allie has multiple worry lines on her forehead and that she is biting her lower lip as if something was worrying her. She looks exhausted, gaunt and thin. Her facial expression as a whole, exhibits indirectly the pain she is going through and how drained she is because the depression left her with nothing and now she is struggling through life to survive.

Migrant Mother is suffering in its highest expression. It is also black and white photography, but this one has multiple subjects. Lange depicts in the photograph a mother and three of her children with their faces covered, which are seeking refugee in something that looks like a handmade tent. The history behind this photo is incredibly touching. Different from Evans’ photograph, which does not have a clear history behind, Lange made sure that hers did. The woman in the photo was a widow, raising her seven children, and that during the 1930s worked on a farm. After the depression, she was left with nothing. She and her children had to live on frozen vegetables and birds. 8 The unknown migrant mother in the photograph is looking into the distance. Multiple facial lines on her forehead show preoccupation. The way her hand is laying on her face leads to thinking that she is contemplating how to provide food for her kids, and finally her clothes clearly show the situation of poverty in which she is currently living.

Even though both photographs belong the same period, are part of the same photographic project and have a similar goal of portraying the society’s condition after the depression they are completely different. Evans’ photograph lacks a history behind the photo. There are no clues on what happened to Allie or why did Evans photographed her. Lange’s photograph, on the contrary, as stated before, has a heartbreaking story behind. Also, Evans’ work focuses on only one subject. The choice of only one subject can be seen as an emphasis on the extreme suffering of Allie and how, by only focusing on her, Evans’ wants to bring the attention of all the precise details he achieved to capture in the photograph. The multiplicity of subjects Lange chooses for her picture allows the audience to grasp more of the story behind and also reveals that there are other victims of the depression, such as children. The fact that there is a story behind one of the photographs and the other not and the difference in subjects illustrate how photographers that share a common goal can take a different approach in how to portray history by presenting more or less of it.

Another big difference between both photographs is that Evans’ composition of the snapshot does not capture any background. There is no reference of where Allie is. It only shows in the back a wood wall with sharp lines. The use of this backdrop also allows the audience to focus more on the subject and her facial expression without deviating attention to any other details. It can be observed that there is also a contrast between the horizontal lines of the background and the verticality of Allie’s expression lines. Lange’s Migrant Mother does have a background, not an extensive one, but at least it allows the public to get a glimpse of what were the conditions under which people were living after the crisis of 1929.

Attachment versus impersonality also has a significant role in the composition of the images. Allie in Evans’ print is looking directly at the camera, recognizing that the photographer is there and that she is the main subject of the photograph. The woman in Lange’s print does not look to the camera, and also her children are looking away. This demonstrates that they were completely alienated from the actual posing for a photograph and rather seems to be an authentic moment in time. A curious fact about both snapshots is that Evans does have a name for the women who he took the picture of, while Lange just calls her migrant mother and was not interested in exposing the name of the woman so that privacy could be respected to a certain extent. There was not a must to know the names of the subjects of the photographs, since they were seen as a symbol of the effects of the depression and individuals could relate to the image.

Additional differences in the composition and the choice of each photographer to portray the historical situation of the time can be seen in the how Evans decided to crop the photograph and just capture the upper half of the women, bringing extreme focus to the face of Allie while Lange provides a wider view of the scene. Evans’ image in comparison to Lange’s is sharper and bolder, the contrast between the black and white tones is stronger, lines are more clearly defined in the women and the background and details are clearly distinguished. Lange’s image different from Evans’ is softer as a whole, the tones are subtle, there is no sharp contrast between the details and there is certain blurriness in the back. The differences in choices each photographer made in regards to how to capture the image demonstrate that there are multiple styles and ways for portraying history based on the same institutional goal. 

Both images independently are effective in having an impact on the audience. Allie Mae Burroughs, when seen seems more like art photography because of the contrast of the lines and the previous description of the photograph, but also achieves to pass on the clear message of the suffering that the Allie is going through. Migrant Mother is more like a candid snapshot that accurately portrays the situation at the moment and can quickly become an image everyone at the moment could relate to. Both Evans and Lange, as modernist photographers, achieved to have a lasting impact in the photographic field. Walker Evans, through his work, influenced the following generations of photographers who used his techniques to capture images that had a strong impact on the audience and in the art world as his did. Lange, further proved, through her pictures, “that modernist art need not only to convey the private feelings of the artist but could also be put in the services of popular journalism” 9 and can produce social change by informing the public of the suffering of people.

These two photographs were crafted in such an exquisite and perfect way by both Evans and Lange that it would be completely impossible to achieve the same effect on people if they were depicted in another artistic medium. These photographers turned the poor women into something aesthetic in their photographs but also made them look “objective and therefore truthful.”10 In other media, both photos would lose their reliability and would just be reduced to a product of imagination. Photography’s uniqueness to capture the moment at the exact time it is happening, the genuine and unchanging feelings of the subjects, and how it does not leave any detail outside makes it be the ultimate tool for depicting current society conditions in an artistic approach while being effective in the goal of fostering social change. 

The Great Depression took everything away from these women and their families. Both Evans and Lange successfully showed the brutal impact crises have on society and how photography is a powerful and efficient tool to portray these events but both in different approaches that still make each work have a strong and lasting impact on the audience. These photographs are a definite proof that photography in the 1930s captured moments that have endured a lifetime and will stay forever in individuals’ memories as part of their history.


  1. Curtis, James C. “Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression.” Winterthur Portfolio 21, no. 1 (1986): 1–20. Accessed December 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/1181013. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.bc.edu/stable/pdf/1181013.pdf.
  2. Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975) | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” 2000. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd evan.htm.
  3. “Dorothea Lange Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” 2016. Accessed December 5, 2016 http://www.theartstory.org/artist-lange-dorothea.htm.
  4. Fluck, Winfried. “Poor Like Us: Poverty and Recognition in American Photography.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 55 (2010): 63–93. Accessed December 5, 2016 doi:10.2307/41158482. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.bc.edu/stable/pdf/41158482.pdf.
  5. Foundation, WGBH Educational. “WGBH American Experience. Riding the Rails.”October 1929. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/rails-timeline/.
  6. Jones, Malcolm. “An American Eye: New Exhibits Celebrate the Austere Beauty of Photographer Walker Evans’s World.” 2000. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.bc.edu/ps/i.do?&id=GALE A60403722&v=2.1&u=mlin m bostcoll&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&authCount=1.
  7. Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History, 2/e. 2nd ed. United States: Pearson Education (US), 2006.
  8. Phelan, Ben. “The Story of the ‘migrant mother’Antiques Roadshow.” April 2014. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/stories/articles/2014/4/14/migrant-mother-dorothea-lange/
  9. US History. “Social and Cultural Effects of the Depression (ushistory.Org].” 2008. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://www.ushistory.org/us/48e.asp.
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Portraying the Past Through Photography in Walker Evans' Allie Mae Burroughs and Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/portraying-the-past-through-photography-in-walker-evans-allie-mae-burroughs-and-dorothea-lange-s-migrant-mother-essay

Portraying the Past Through Photography in Walker Evans' Allie Mae Burroughs and Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother

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