Lange, Dorothea Margaretta

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LANGE, DOROTHEA MARGARETTA


Beginning in 1919, Dorothea Lange (18951965) began to photograph in detail the people and circumstances of the Great Depression (19291939). She later extensively photographed working people of the West, such as poor migrant farm workers. Later, working for Life magazine, she photographed Japanese-Americans imprisoned in concentration camps in California and New Mexico during World War II (19391945). Through the lens of her camera, Americans began to see for themselves the scope and extent of social injustices in the United States. Lange's seemed to prove the old maxim that a picture could speak a thousand words.

Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 26, 1895, the first of several children born to Joanna and Heinrich Nutzhorn. Her father was a lawyer and her mother worked as a librarian. At age seven Lange contracted poliomyelitis (polio) in a time when there was no known vaccine. Her right leg was permanently disabled from the knee down, causing her to walk with a limp. Lange said in later years that the teasing she received in childhood because of this illness was both humiliating and instructive. She became very sensitive to the suffering of fellow human beings.

Lange attended school and lived a relatively normal life under her family's hard economic circumstances. She saw New York at its best and its worst, going to concerts and art museums, but also walking in the immigrant ghettos.

At the time of her high school graduation in 1912, Lange decided to become a professional photographer. She worked in photographic studios and studied photography at Columbia University. At age 21 she began to travel across the United States, selling her photographs along the way to help finance her journey. She ended her trip in San Francisco, California, where she opened a photographic studio and took portrait pictures of wealthy San Francisco families.

Lange married the famous painter, Maynard Dixon (18751946), in 1920, and the pair lived a bohemian life. They had two children and moved to Taos, New Mexico, to live for a time at the artist colony presided over by Mabel Dodge Luhan (18791962).

When Lange left Taos and returned to California, she saw large numbers of homeless and unemployed people, all victims of the Depression. These images inspired Lange to document through her photographs the social conditions she saw in the United States: the soup kitchens, the breadlines, the tragic scenes of the 1930s. This marked the beginning of her career as a documentary photographer.

Having divorced Maynard Dixon in 1935, Lange married Paul Taylor, an economist who was working closely with migrant farm workers. The two became a team, documenting specific information about the Depression throughout many areas of the United States, particularly the South and Southwest.

Lange's became famous when she produced a volume of pictorial evidence about the plight of the poor in the United States. The photographs revealed the varieties of social injustice experienced by many Americans. They reinforced to the government that social and business reforms were needed quickly. Because her work was so emotionally touching and direct, Lange not only recorded conditions but also helped to change them by sharing her work with those who could and would bring change. Her 1933 photograph called "White Angel Bread Line" drew the attention of social, political, and governmental reformers throughout the United States. She photographed the suffering and the social injustices she saw, and let the pictures speak for victims everywhere in the United States.

By 1935 Dorothea Lange was employed by the federal government, helping others to write reports and documenting that writing with her photographs. She continued to work with the government until 1941, when she left to take advantage of a Guggenheim grant offered to her. She then traveled alone to photograph the American war camps, in which Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by the United States government because it feared these people were security risks during World War II (19391945).

Lange's photographs provided a vision of her time and many, once seen, were never forgotten. Lange's work touched the heart and put a human face on government statistics. She died in October 1965, just before the opening of her one-woman photographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

See also: Great Depression


FURTHER READING

Becker, Karin. Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1980.

Curtis, James. Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Fisher, Andrea. Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: Women Photographers for the U.S. Government, 19351944. New York: Pandora Press, 1987.

Guimond, James. American Photography and the American Dream. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1978.

Meltzer, Milton. Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

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