The photo sold at auction April 5, 2000 for a realized price of $70,500.1
Christie’s Sale 9330, Lot 250
Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma
Gelatin silver print. 1936. With faint Resettlement Administration number in pencil on the verso.
7.5/8 x 7.3/8in. (19.4 x 18.7cm.) Framed.
This iconic image of a child, titled “Damaged Child,” was taken in August 1936 in a Oklahoma “shacktown.”
No plumbing nor electricity. Homes built from salvaged scraps. Polluted water and no facilities for trash and other waste.
Shanty towns, also known as shacktowns, sprang up near many cities during the Great Depression. Sometimes called Hooverville, Little Oklahoma or Okieville, these settlements often grew on empty land, unrecognized officially by local authorities, but often tolerated or ignored out of necessity.
The child in the image was one of the many displaced by the droughts and economic hard times of the 30s. She is described by the photographer, Dorothea Lange, as “possibly retarded, as well as abused, and made an outcast because she was different.”2
Beyond the general sympathy Lange possessed for her subjects, she may have felt a deeper personal connection to this particular girl: at the age of seven, Lange herself had contracted polio, which caused her foot to become limp. Here, perhaps even more than in her many other astonishing photographs of the Great Depression, Lange’s remarkable talent is her ability to create photojournalistic images which “show an empathy so deep that it raises them to the level of art.”3
While it seems that the child’s left cheek may be a bit swollen, Lange’s title for the photo and her short description are likely very subjective rather than factual. Lange was a photographer documenting, through her photographs, conditions of the migrants and others. However, she also had a background as a portrait photographer and this image is very much a portrait, probably intentionally, likely with the thought that that it might be used to convey a message if it turned out. Also, I know of at least two instances where, in later years, subjects of her photos strongly disagreed with the description that she had jotted down when she took the images.
The title “Damaged Child” seems overdetermined, as does the portrait in some ways. The ragged clothes falling off the scrawny body, the uncombed hair, the grim background…. Haven’t we seen this before? In Jacob Riis’s turn-of-the-century photographs of New York City slums? In John Thomson’s similar portraits from Glasgow and London? This boyish girl may be particularly bold, with her direct stare into the camera and black marks for eyes, but not unique. Of course, her typicality is part of the social message of the photograph: there are many just like her and we shouldn’t turn away or move on.
What seems, then, most surprising in the photograph is the positioning of her hands. Hidden and held close, the girl’s hands suggest a shyness and self-protection that the rest of the image belies. It is as if metaphorically she is refusing to ask for a handout. Gordon tells us that Lange moved slowly as she set up for portraits, fussing with the camera and lighting until her subjects relaxed. But this girl never relaxed. And Lange, betraying her background in studio portraiture, positions her beautifully, slightly off center against the textured backdrop. Both photographer and model seem to know exactly what to do. 4
Many of the displaced lacked the funds to even join the great westward migration down Route 66 and other highways. In Oklahoma City, many of these people ended up in the Elm Grove shacktown.
Who were these people? Where were they from and what was their life like before coming to Elm Grove? What happened to them after their encounter with the government photographer and after the depression ended?
2‘Damaged Child’ – Manila Bulletin Picture Perfect
3American Photographs, Heyman, p. 25
4 Migrant Child – Victoria Olsen