Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: Long–Term Unit
Approximately 10 class periods
Author: Joan Dooley, A.P. Art History and Photography Teacher, Fairfax Senior High School Magnet Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, with J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

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Lange and Social-Documentary Photography
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Lesson Overview

Students consider the function of social-documentary photography. They research Dorothea Lange's documentary projects, and create their own photo essay about a subject of interest to them.

Learning Objectives

• Students will discuss and analyze examples of social-documentary photographs by Dorothea Lange.
• Students will define "social documentary" and consider the function of social-documentary photography.
• Students will research one or more of Dorothea Lange's social-documentary projects.
• Students will research a subject of importance or special interest to them (e.g., a community they know or are interested in knowing about, or a local or national event or a political or social issue they care about) and use interview techniques to develop their project.
• Students will create a photo essay about their subject that meets their definition of "social documentary." (See suggestions in "Steps" for modifying the lesson if students do not have access to cameras.)


Cameras, film, photo paper, darkroom

If no darkroom is available: Use digital or Polaroid cameras or have film developed at a commercial lab. For black-and-white photos, use C-41 black-and-white film (such as Ilford Super XP-2). Although this film prints black-and-white, it can be processed at any one-hour color lab.

Materials for presenting photographs: 16-x-20-inch paper or board for mounting and displaying photographs with captions or materials for accordion books—good-quality, heavy-weight paper eight times as long as it is wide (for a nine-page book, paper should be nine times as long, etc.); two pieces of cardboard, foam core, or other paper board for book covers; rulers; scissors; glue sticks; and tools for scoring and folding (e.g., a bone folder).

Lesson Steps

Day 1: Using the following photo-analysis questions, students discuss one or more of the Lange images, focusing on how it expresses and informs about an event, issue, group, or community:

• What do you see, feel, and think?
• What sort of response do you think the photographer wanted you to have?
• What group, event, issue, or community is shown?
• What do you learn about it in the photo?
• What story is the photograph telling?
• What details in the photograph help to tell the story?

Homework: Each student researches the term "social documentary" and drafts a definition. (Students might also research two related terms currently in use by artists, art historians, and art critics: "concerned photography" and "compassionate photography.") Students also research on the Internet or in books other images by Lange that were part of social-documentary projects she undertook (for example, additional photographs she took while working for the Farm Security Administration). Students bring to class examples from the Internet or books.

Day 2: In small groups students share their definitions of social-documentary photography and arrive at a definition they agree upon. Next, students agree on a definition as a class. Students share other examples of Lange's social-documentary work and discuss how the images that were part of the same project relate to one another in terms of subject matter, formal qualities, etc.

Homework: Students choose and research a topic of importance or special interest to them (e.g., a community they know or are interested in knowing about, or a local or national event or a political or social issue they care about) that will be the subject of their own social-documentary project, presented in the form of a photo essay (a series of related photographs focusing on a specific topic that is intended to be viewed collectively, often with captions).

Day 3: The photo essay was popularized by Lange and other photographers during the 1930s. Photo essays by Lange were published in various magazines and reports from the 1930s to the 1960s. What is the difference between a photo essay and a single photograph about the same topic? What can a photo essay do that a single photograph cannot? Why is photography especially well suited for the essay format?

Students discuss topics for their photo essays and brainstorm ideas for how to visually express them. Students also brainstorm interview questions for individuals they may photograph as part of the project.

Homework: Students continue researching their topic and then write a one-page plan summarizing the key story they hope to tell in their photo essay and strategies for doing so, keeping in mind their definition of "social documentary."

Day 4 (Homework or class time): Students shoot one roll of film for their photo essay. During photo shoot, students interview their subjects and record responses.

If cameras are not available, students collect existing images representing their topic from the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and other sources, or they make a series of drawings from observation or based on sources described above.

Days 5-7: Students develop film and print proof sheets and enlargements (or continue to assemble found images or work on their drawings.) The images students select should collectively tell the key story they defined and described earlier.

Homework: Students select texts from interview material and draft any captions for images they will include in their final grouping of images.

Days 8-10: Students lay out their photo essay and texts. Students mount images on 16-x-20-inch pages, artfully arranging them and interspersing them with text derived from their interviews. (This approach approximates the way in which photo essays were most often presented in magazines and other publications.) Students can also make accordion books in which to present their images.

Instructions for making accordion book:
1. Fold long sheet of paper in half and crease fold with bone folder. Bringing the left and right sides to the center, fold and fold in half again. Fold each of those sections in half again to create eight sections. Re-crease all the folds, making an accordion.
2. Cut two pieces of cardboard 1/8 inch larger than the height and width of pages.
3. OPTIONAL: Cut two pieces of colored or patterned paper or cloth 1½ inches larger on all sides than the height and width of cover board.
4. Spread glue stick over one entire side of one cover board.
5. Center glued side of board on paper/cloth cover and press down firmly.
6. Cut corners of the cover at a diagonal but don't make cuts closer than 1/4 inch from the corners of board.
7. Glue and fold edge of cover material around corners of board.
8. Repeat for back cover.
9. Spread glue stick over the inside front cover. Center first page of accordion over the cover and press down firmly. Use bone folder if available.
10. Repeat for inside back cover.
11. Spread glue stick on back of photos and texts and attach to pages. (Note: Instead of gluing, insert photos into diagonal slits cut into accordion paper at all four photo corners. Allow room for captions below.)
12. Neatly write captions below each image.

Human Erosion/Migrant Mother / Lange
Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother), Nipomo, California Dorothea Lange, March 1936


Students and teacher assess whether or not their projects meet the definition they established for "social documentary."

Teacher evaluates final products based on the following criteria:

• Technical: careful framing, detail, clarity, contrast are evident in proof sheets and enlargements; careful craftsmanship evident in presentation of photographs and written captions.
• Creative: both proof sheets and enlargements show exploration of different concepts used to effectively tell a story about the chosen subject; shows experimentation with different viewing angles, lighting, and framing. Product represents a good selection of negatives from the proof sheets.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Text Types and Purposes
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual-Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

Artistic Perception
1.2–Discuss works of art as to theme, genre, style, idea, and differences in media.
Creative Expression
2.5–Select specific media and processes to express moods, feelings, themes, or ideas.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.1–Construct and describe plausible interpretations of what they perceive in works of art.

Grade 7
Creative Expression
2.6–Create original artwork using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.
2.7–Create a series of artworks that expresses a personal statement demonstrating skill in applying the elements of art and the principles of design.

Grade 8
Artistic Perception
1.2–Analyze and justify how their artistic choices contribute to the expressive quality of their artwork.
Creative Expression
2.3–Create original artwork, using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.
Historical and Cultural Context
3.1–Examine and describe or report on the role of artwork created to make a social comment or protest social conditions.

Grades 9-12
Artistic Perception
1.5–Analyze the materials used by a given artist and describe how their use influences the meaning of the work.
Creative Expression
2.6–Create a two- or three-dimensional artwork that addresses a social issue.
Historical and Cultural Context
3.3–Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the diverse issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected artworks.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.5–Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about artworks.

National Standards for Visual Arts

Grades 5-8

1. Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.
3. Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.

Grades 9-12
1. Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
Students apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their artworks.
4. Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures
Students analyze relationships of works of art to one another in terms of history, aesthetics, and culture, justifying conclusions made in the analysis and using such conclusions to inform their own art making.
5. Reflecting upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
Students describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.