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                                       politics + culture

Monday, November 28, 2005

the white angel

Somewhere on San Francisco's Embarcadaro...between a tourist diner and a corporate office park...is a small stone monument, half-hidden in the bushes, indicating the site where, in 1933, Dorothea Lange took this photograph.

That fact means it is also the former site of the White Angel Bread Line...and, as a part of that, it is the spot where one hungry old man, unshaven, in a filthy cap, turned his back on other hungry men for a moment and seemed to express in that gesture a universal human feeling: of vulnerability, of solitude, of the indignity of a poverty that herded men like cattle.

Perhaps it's better that the monument is hidden in the bushes. Visitors to this city, if they can find it, will have already seen hundreds of hungry and disheveled men and women. And if they stay in hotels near the Tenderloin, as many do, they will have seen long lines for food, and the despondent faces of those who live on our streets. Of course, as a nation, after Katrina, only the willfully ignorant can deny the entrenched poverty in this country. We all saw that.

The power of Lange's photo was that it held up a mirror. The old man elicits sympathy because he had turned the other way. In doing so, in turning towards us, he became real, specific, worthy of compassion.

I've always felt that the hidden symbolic meaning of the photo was that we encounter him only because he had turned his back on the others. In doing so, he imitated exactly what we have done to countless people just like him.



  • I have a number of Lange's photographs and would love to know exactly where that monument is. Maybe it is for blogsters to become more visual and do for the country today what the FSA photographers did in the 30's.

    By Anonymous Wes Rolley, at 10:07 PM  

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