born may 25, 1895 hoboken, new jersey
died october 11, 1965
Dorothea Lange in "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother"">
"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions."
dorothea lange in "the assignment i'll never forget: migrant mother"
Dorothea Lange, considered one of America's most important twentieth-century photographers, began her career as a traditional portrait photographer. However, by 1933, observing the desperate conditions of people who had lost their jobs and homes in the Depression, Lange felt compelled to leave her studio and go onto the streets in San Francisco and then into the farm country to photograph the situation. Never seeing her photographs as art, she instead wanted to use the photos to get action on aid for the poor. Eventually she would be one of the most famous Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. She was a perceptive observer of the human condition and used her camera to document the faces of Americans struggling through the Depression.
Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City. Her parents, Heinrich (Henry) Martin Nutzhorn and Joanna Caroline Lange, were of German heritage. Dorothea's birth name was Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, but she later dropped her middle name and took her mother's maiden name for her last name. Dorothea's grandmother, Sophie Vottler, lived in the household throughout Dorothea's youth and was perhaps the first to recognize the acute intelligence, perception, and sensitivity of her granddaughter.
When Dorothea was seven years old, she contracted polio, which left her with a damaged right leg and a limp. Being called "Limpy" by other children caused her much pain as a child. When Dorothea was twelve years old, her father abandoned the family, which by then included Dorothea's six-year-old brother, Henry Martin. Luckily her mother, Joanna, found work in a branch-library on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, the most densely populated square mile in the world. Each morning Dorothea rode the ferry with her mother across the Hudson, then walked through the crowded streets to Public School (P.S.) 62, where her mother dropped her off before going to the library to work. The streets were full of Chinese people, Irish people, black Americans, Italians, and most of all, Jews. Later in life Dorothea would recall that she had noticed the clamor and lifestyles in the neighborhood "like a photographic observer." The Lower East Side helped develop her intense awareness of all about her. Two evenings a week her mother worked late, and Dorothea would have to walk to the ferry alone. She had to walk by the poverty-stricken area of the Bowery, which was littered with drunken men. Intimidated, the young teen developed a technique she would use throughout her photographic career. She learned to keep an expression on her face that did not draw any attention. No one took notice of her. She called it her "face of invisibility."
Dorothea did not do well academically at P.S. 62 and made no friends. In February 1909 she entered Manhattan's Wadleigh High School, a school for girls only. Her favorite subjects were English, drawing, and music. However, the strict school concentrated on developing teachers and paid no particular attention to the arts. Dorothea remained a loner, but she did meet one girl who became a lifelong friend, Florence Ahlstrom. At graduation in June 1913, Dorothea announced what she intended to do with the rest of her life—she would be a photographer.
Lange had never snapped a picture or even owned a camera. Yet, as related in Milton Meltzer's book Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life, Lange once commented, "I've never not been sure that I was a photographer any more than you would not be sure that you were yourself." Because her mother insisted she have something to fall back on, Lange enrolled in New York Training School for Teachers and found work in photographers' studios at night and on weekends. Soon she landed a job in the studio of Arnold Genthe (1869–1942), a top portrait photographer whose clients were all members of the privileged classes. Why Genthe hired the young Lange is a mystery, but perhaps like her grandmother, he sensed the young woman's intense perception and eye for the inner essence of humans. Genthe paid her fifteen dollars a week, a good wage, and in his studio Lange quickly learned photographic techniques. Her first camera was a gift from Genthe. The only photography class Lange ever took was from well-known photographer Clarence H. White (1871–1925), who taught Art Photography I and II in the extension department of Columbia University in New York City.
A portrait photographer
After apprenticing at several other New York studios, Lange, along with her apartment mate Florence Ahlstrom, decided to travel around the world. They got no farther than San Francisco, where they fell victim to a pickpocket. With only four dollars to their name, the young women had no choice but to seek employment in San Francisco. Lange immediately found a job doing photofinishing at Marsh and Company on Market Street. Lange often referred to Marsh's counter as the beginning of her life. There the interest she showed in what people left for photofinishing soon made her friends in the art and photography world. Two of her first friends were Roi Partridge, an etcher, and his wife, photographer Imogen Cummingham. Lange also joined the San Francisco Camera Club. Before long, with the help of wealthy San Franciscans, she was able to open a studio of her own at 540 Sutter Street. Her studio prospered as word spread about her talent for portrait photography. Soon Lange was photographing the wealthiest families in San Francisco. She thought of her work as a skilled trade; she was making a living in portrait photography. She did not see herself as an artist, and she rarely did any personal photography. In the fall of 1919, her friend Roi Partridge introduced Lange to Maynard Dixon, an already well-known painter of Western scenes, landscapes, people, and animals. Although Dixon was twenty years older than Lange, they married on March 21, 1920.
Lange's first child, Daniel Rhodes Dixon, was born on May 15, 1925, and a second son, John Eaglefeather Dixon, arrived on June 12, 1928. Lange and Dixon maintained separate studios for their work, and Dixon frequently traveled to the Southwest on "sketching trips."
Onto the street
In October 1929 the stock market crashed, sending stock values plummeting. In the weeks and months that followed, Lange's and Dixon's wealthy customers stopped ordering portraits and paintings. By 1934, in a money-saving move, Lange and Dixon gave up their house, boarded their young sons at school, and began living separately in their respective studios.
As more and more unemployed people began wandering the streets, Lange, with time on her hands, peered out the windows of her studio, observing the neighborhood much as she had done as a child in New York's Lower East Side. Her instincts then led her out onto the streets to photograph the humanity below. She had recently been thinking that she needed something more satisfying than studio portrait photography. Near Lange's studio a wealthy woman known as the "White Angel" had set up a breadline to feed the hungry. Lange donned the "face of invisibility" that she had used as a child walking through the Bowery in New York City and began to shoot photos of people along the breadline. One exposure was of a man in torn clothing leaning against a barricade holding a tin cup. She pinned the picture on her wall and called it "White Angel Breadline."
Lange left her studio more and more often to photograph people whose lives had been destroyed by the Depression, those on the breadlines and those living on the streets. She also photographed common laborers, including those involved in strikes for better working conditions.
In the summer of 1934 gallery owner Willard Van Dyke exhibited Lange's work at his gallery in Oakland, California. It was there Lange first met Paul Schuster Taylor, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1935 Taylor began serving as the field director for the Division of Rural Rehabilitation of the California Emergency Relief Administration known as SERA. SERA was the California state division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), an agency established in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) administration to bring relief to Americans devastated by the Depression. In February 1935 Taylor hired Lange to photograph the migrant workers who were flooding into California in search of work in the fields. Lange closed her portrait studio and followed Taylor into the field. Although she left behind commercial portrait photography, she took with her the skills of portraiture. She also frequently put on her face of invisibility as she moved among the migrant farmworkers. At other times she sat down and talked to those she photographed, collecting their stories. She looked upon her work as photography with a purpose—the goal was to make the conditions under which migrants lived visible to others and to thereby bring about change. Working as a team for SERA, Taylor wrote notes and Lange provided photos for illustration. The Taylor-Lange reports were sent back to FERA in Washington, D.C.
In May 1935 the Resettlement Administration (RA) was established as part of the federal government's effort to aid the rural poor. The RA brought together the various government agencies that were attempting to deal with agricultural problems, including the Land Programs and the Rural Rehabilitation Division of FERA. Taylor and Lange became employees of the RA. (In 1937 the RA would be absorbed by the Farm Security Administration, or FSA.) Rexford Tugwell (1891–1979; see Brain Trust entry) was appointed head of the RA, and he hired Roy Stryker (1893–1975; see entry) to head the Historical Section in the RA. Under Stryker's guidance, the Historical Section mounted an extensive documentary photography project to capture on film the conditions of the rural poor and publish those photos for the general public. Stryker and his staff hoped the photographs would help the public understand rural poverty and therefore support the RA projects. By the end of 1935 Stryker had hired a group of amazingly talented photographers: Arthur Rothstein (1915–1985), Ben Shahn (1898–1969), Walker Evans (1903–1975), Carl Mydans (1907–), and Dorothea Lange. Even though they had never met, Stryker hired Lange on the strength of her photos in the Taylor-Lange reports. Lange merely had to transfer to the Historical Section. Stryker and Lange finally met in May 1936.
Who Were the Rural Poor?
By the late 1800s tenant farmers (farmers who rented the land they worked) operated approximately one-third of Southern farms. By 1920 one-half of Southern farms were cultivated by tenant farmers. And by 1930 at least three-fourths of the farmers in Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana were tenant farmers. Translated, these figures meant that approximately eight and one half million persons—over one million white families and seven hundred thousand black families in the South—worked as tenants on someone else's land in 1930. Up to one-half of the tenant farmers were sharecroppers, who were required to share a portion of their crop with the landowner. Few tenants or sharecroppers ever earned more than two hundred or three hundred dollars a year, and often they had large families to support. Cotton was the principal crop grown, and landowners generally demanded that crops be grown right up to the doorstep of the farmer's shack, which left no room for vegetable gardens to supply the tenant family's needs.
Great Plains farmers had different problems than their Southern counterparts. In the United States the Great Plains extend from North Dakota down to Oklahoma and Texas. During the early 1930s great black clouds of dust began to roll over the land in this region as strong winds blew down from Canada. A severe drought had caused wheat and other grain crops to fail, and because the land had been plowed up for wheat for many years, there were few native grasses left to anchor the topsoil when the winds came. The temperature stayed about a hundred degrees week after week in the mid-1930s. In 1936 a seven-county survey in southeastern Colorado revealed that half of the farmhouses were abandoned. Oklahoma reported the loss of approximately eighteen farms a day. The stricken farm families generally headed west to greener pastures in California, Oregon, and Washington. From 1935 to 1939 an estimated 70,857 Oklahomans, or Okies, went to California in search of farm-work. Soon, regardless of what state they were from, all poor farm families migrating into California were called Okies. Some went into cities in search of work, but almost half stayed in the central valleys of California, following crop harvests and living in squalid camps. Unable to find the better life they had hoped for, they lived with starvation and filth through the last half of the 1930s.
Another major change took place in the forty-year-old Lange's life in 1935. Realizing she and Taylor were an extraordinary match, she divorced Maynard Dixon in October 1935 and married Taylor on December 6, 1935. Taylor had transferred to the research division of the newly formed Social Security Board in late 1935, but they continued to travel together as Taylor researched farm labor difficulties in various regions. On an RA/FSA assignment between 1935 and 1939, Lange traveled extensively, visiting hundreds of agricultural communities, many not on any map. She moved through the West, Southwest, and South. In March 1936 she photographed a migrant woman and her children in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California. Known as the "Migrant Mother," the photograph has been reproduced many thousands of times, becoming a lasting symbol of hard times during the 1930s Depression era. Lange produced a large number of other superior-quality photos. Her photos express her intimate sense of the people and a compassionate awareness of their living and working conditions. Lange's photographs were never staged; that is, she never arranged or posed her subjects. She usually photographed from a low angle, which automatically gave her subjects a look of dignity.
Lange and Stryker communicated extensively by letter. The main problem they encountered was a difference of opinion about where her negatives should be kept. Lange wanted to keep them in her Berkeley studio, where she could control the quality of prints made from them. Stryker wanted and needed them in the central file in Washington, D.C. They debated endlessly over the negatives. Also, Stryker was forced to constantly juggle the Historical Section's budget by letting photographers go and then rehiring them, so Lange was not actually on the RA/FSA payroll continuously between 1935 and 1939.
Career as a photographer continues
As work wound down for the FSA, Lange and Taylor worked together on a book that would combine her photographs and his field notes. They worked on the project intensively from late 1938 through the spring of 1939. Published as An American Exodus in 1939, the book met with little success as Americans turned their attention to events in Europe and the looming war.
During World War II (1939–45) Lange worked for the War Relocation Authority, photographing the Japanese Americans who were relocated to internment camps. After the war she covered the birth of the United Nations. During this time Lange developed digestive tract problems including ulcers, and her poor health prevented her from doing much field work for several years. In 1958 Taylor traveled to Asia as a consulting economist for both the government and private companies, and he took Lange with him. They visited Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Bali, India, and Pakistan. Lange had no particular plans for photographing but shot pictures as opportunities presented themselves. In Saigon, Vietnam, she photographed three generations of a family planting onions. In Bali she photographed the hands of a dancer. Soon after this trip Lange and Taylor traveled to South America, to Egypt, and to Europe. Rather than attempting pictures with social implications, Lange focused more on beauty.
By the 1960s, still in poor health, Lange concentrated on photographing subjects close at hand, such as the oak trees in her yard and her family. In early 1964 Lange learned that the Museum of Modern Art in New York City had committed to a retrospective show of her work for February 1966. Retrospective exhibits present a comprehensive selection of an artist's work. Two years seemed like short notice to plan an exhibition of a lifetime of work. Themes had to be selected, prints produced and mounted, captions written, and catalog material gathered and printed. Lange set about the task. In August 1965 she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the esophagus. Lange's last year had been consumed in preparing for the special exhibition, which opened three months after her death in October 1965.
For More Information
cox, christopher. dorothea lange. new york, ny: aperture, 1981.
elliott, george p. dorothea lange. garden city, ny: doubleday, 1966.
hurley, f. jack. portrait of a decade: roy stryker and the development of documentary photography in the thirties. baton rouge, la: louisiana state university press, 1972.
lange, dorothea, and paul schuster taylor. an american exodus: a record of human erosion. reprint. new york, ny: arno press, 1975.
lange, dorothea, and paul schuster taylor. lange looks at the americancountry woman. los angeles, ca: ward ritchie press, 1967.
levin, howard m., and katherine northrup, eds. dorothea lange: farmsecurity administration photographs, 1935–1939, volume 1. glencoe, il: text-fiche press, 1980.
meltzer, milton. dorothea lange: a photographer's life. new york, ny: farrat, straus, & giroux, 1978.
ohrn, karin b. dorothea lange and the documentary tradition. baton rouge, la: louisiana state university press, 1980.
o'neal, hank. a vision shared: a classic portrait of america and its people,1935–1943. new york, ny: st. martin's, 1976.
lange, dorothea. "the assignment i'll never forget: migrant mother." popular photography (february 1960): pp. 42, 126.
Excerpt from "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother"
published inpopular photography,february 1960
"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions."
By the mid-1930s, thousands of small farmers had lost their farms. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who did not own their land but rented from large landowners, continued living in poverty. Living in perhaps the most desperate condition were the migrant farm families. Migrant farmers, many of whom had abandoned their Dust Bowl farms, followed the seasonal crop harvest in the West, laboring in the fields for meager wages. Their families lived in destitute conditions, always on the brink of starvation.
Responding to the small farmers' difficulty, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) established the Resettlement Administration (RA) in April 1935. One goal of the RA was to resettle the impoverished farm families on productive land with the opportunity to eventually buy the land. However, many Americans did not understand the plight of the rural poor. Rexford Tugwell (1891–1979), the chief of the RA, knew he must gain general public support if the RA was to be successful in its mission. To build support for his program, he established a photography branch, the Historical Section, within the agency and hired Roy Stryker to administer it. Both Tugwell and Stryker knew that photographs could communicate more powerfully than any written accounts.
Stryker hired a handful of highly professional and talented photographers who were able to compose and capture pictures with remarkable qualities. These photographers turned their cameras to the people who needed the RA's help: sharecroppers, tenant farmers, black American cotton pickers, and migrant families harvesting crops. The photos they took were black-and-white, simple, stark, and powerful. One of the photographers Stryker hired was Dorothea Lange (1895–1965). At the time she was hired, Lange was documenting the condition of migrant workers for the state of California. While working for Stryker she shot her most famous picture, "Migrant Mother." She encountered the subject of her photo and the woman's three daughters in California's Nipomo Valley at a pea pickers' migrant camp in March 1936. The moving picture illustrated the desperate situation of those in the camp. The following excerpt is Lange's account of how one of the greatest American documentary photographs came to be.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Assignment I'll Never Forget":
- Note that in 1937 Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965) established the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which absorbed the RA's Historical Section in its entirety. The RA photographers became known from that time on as FSA photographers.
- Before the 1930s most photography took place in a studio. Documentary photography, or photos of real-life situations, first became common in the 1930s during the Great Depression.
- The conditions under which "Migrant Mother" was made so impressed Lange that almost twenty-four years after taking the photo, she could recall her exact thoughts as she drove up to the camp.
Excerpt from "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother"
When I began thinking of my most memorable assignments, instantly there flashed to mind the experience surrounding "Migrant Mother," an experience so vivid and well-remembered that I will attempt to pass it on to you.…
"Migrant Mother" was made 23 years ago, in March 1936, when I was on the team of Farm Security Administration photographers (called "Resettlement Administration" in the early days). Their duties and the scope of their work is a story well known to students of contemporary photography. We had a unique job, and the results of our travels over the U.S.A. have proved of real value.…
To repeat, it was 23 years ago at the end of a cold, miserable winter. I had been traveling in the field alone for a month, photographing the migratory farm labor of California—the ways of life and the conditions of these people who serve and produce our great crops. My work was done, time was up, and I was worked out.
It was raining, the camera bags were packed, and I had on the seat beside me in the car the results of my long trip, the box containing all those rolls and packs of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington [D.C.]. It was a time of relief. Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night, and my eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead. I felt freed, for I could lift my mind off my job and think of home.
I WAS ON MY WAY and barely saw a crude sign with pointing arrow which flashed by at the side of the road, saying, PEA-PICKERS CAMP. But out of the corner of my eye I did see it.
In the field
In the field: out on assignment as opposed to working in an office.
Migratory farm labor
Migratory farm labor: workers who move regularly to find work harvesting crops.
Summons: calls in her mind to turn back.
I didn't want to stop, and didn't. I didn't want to remember that I had seen it, so I drove on and ignored the summons . Then, accompanied by the rhythmic hum of the windshield wipers, arose an inner argument:
Dorothea, how about that camp back there?
What is the situation back there?
Are you going back?
Nobody could ask this of you, now could they?
To turn back certainly is not necessary. Haven't you plenty of negatives already on this subject? Isn't this just one more of the same? Besides, if you take a camera out in this rain, you're just asking for trouble. Now be reasonable, etc., etc., etc.
Having well convinced myself for 20 miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing, I made a U-turn on the empty highway. I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign, PEA-PICKERS CAMP.
I was following instinct , not reason; I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.
This, then, is the "Migrant Mother" photograph with which you are so familiar. It has, in a sense, lived a life of its own through these years; it goes on and on. The negative now belongs to the Library of Congress, which controls its use and prints it. Whenever I see this photograph reproduced, I give it a salute as to an old friend. I did not create it, but I was behind that big, old Graflex , using it as an instrument for recording something of importance. The woman in this picture has become a symbol to many people; until now it is her picture, not mine.
Instinct: natural impulse or calling.
Lean-to: having only one slope or pitch.
Graflex: a type of camera.
Compulsion: irresistible impulse.
What I am trying to tell other photographers is that had I not been deeply involved in my undertaking on that field trip, I would not have had to turn back. What I am trying to say is that I believe this inner compulsion to be the vital ingredient in our work; that ifour work is to carry force and meaning to our views, we must be willing to go "all-out."
"Migrant Mother" always reminds me of this, although I was in that camp for only ten minutes. Then I closed my camera, and did go straight home. [Lange, pp. 42, 126]
What Happened Next…
The RA/FSA nurtured a number of photojournalists and photo artists. Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein (1915–1985), and Russell Lee (1903–1986) established their careers and went on to many photo-documentary projects. Others who served as RA/FSA photographers, such as Walker Evans (1903–1975) and Ben Shahn (1898–1969), went on to distinguished careers in the arts—Evans as a photographer and Shahn as a muralist.
By 1936, the government-sponsored photographs appeared in newspapers, magazines, and special exhibits. Roy Stryker carefully categorized and filed the pictures. Although the original intent of the photographs was to visually show the general public the extent of rural poverty in America, by the later 1930s Stryker broadened the projects' scope to include many aspects of more mainstream American life. Stryker had his photographers focus on such subjects as people at county fairs, multi-generational families, barber shops, road signs, and other scenes. Once he gave instructions to photograph "the smell" of apple pie in autumn in New England. The photos became a treasure trove of images that helped the nation understand the needs of those in poverty, make sense of Roosevelt's social welfare New Deal programs, including the RA/FSA, and see what life was like in the 1930s for middle class Americans.
The photographs—tens of thousands of images—spanned a six-year period, from 1935 to December 1941, the month when the United States entered World War II (1939–45). The Historical Section was transferred to the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1941. Stryker still headed the section, and a few of the FSA photographers followed
him. Their mission switched to documenting America's war preparation.
In 1943, Stryker left the OWI. The collection of prints and negatives, by then called the FSA/OWI collection, ended up in the Library of Congress. In 1944 the library received 277,000 negatives and 77,000 prints of the work done by Stryker's photographers in the RA, FSA, and OWI. For most Americans at the start of the twenty-first century, images of America in the 1930s are based on the FSA/OWI collection.
Did you know…
- Roy Stryker asked the FSA photographers to take photos of specific subjects but always allowed them the artistic freedom to photograph anything that captured their eye, or as he put it, anything they "really saw."
- The photographers focused on the faces of people and on the land; they wanted their photos to tell a story.
- Two photojournalism magazines (magazines telling a story with photographs) began publication in the later 1930s: Life in 1936 and Look in 1938.
- Before the 1930s, photography was not generally considered part of the arts. Originally the RA and FSA photos were intended to serve as propaganda to build support for the two government aid agencies. But the outstanding work of the RA/FSA photographers elevated photography to an art form.
- At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the entire remarkable FSA/OWI collection can be viewed on the Internet at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html (the American Memory section of the Library of Congress Web site).
Consider the following…
- Some Americans thought it was a waste of money for the federal government to fund photography projects. Do you think government money should have been spent on photographs?
For More Information
garver, thomas h. just before the war: urban america from 1935 to 1941 as seen by photographers of the farm security administration. new york, ny: october house, 1968.
o'neal, hank. a vision shared: a classic portrait of america and its people, 1935–1943. new york, ny: st. martin's press, 1976.
rothstein, arthur. the depression years. new york, ny: dover publications, 1978.
stryker, roy e., and nancy wood. in this proud land: america 1935–1943 as seen in the fsa photographs. greenwich, ct: new york graphic society, 1973.
thompson, kathleen, and hilary macaustin, eds. children of the depression. bloomington, in: indiana university press, 2001.
lange, dorothea. "the assignment i'll never forget: migrant mother." popular photography (february 1960): pp. 42, 43, and 126.
"america from the great depression to world war ii: photographs from the fsa-owi, 1935–1945." library of congress.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html (accessed on august 28, 2002).
Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895–October 11, 1965) was one of the leading documentary photographers of the Depression and arguably the most influential. Some of her pictures were reproduced so repeatedly and widely that they became commonly understood symbols of the human suffering caused by the economic disaster. At the same time, her work functioned to create popular support for New Deal programs.
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Lange's life changed when her parents separated and her mother went to work. Lange attended school on New York City's lower east side because her mother worked there, and she often entertained herself after school by exploring the city on foot, despite her slight limp as a result of childhood polio. Attracted by photography from her early teen years, Lange created a kind of apprenticeship for herself by persuading studio portrait photographers to hire her as a helper. She went to San Francisco in 1919 and lived the rest of her life in the Bay area. She developed a fashionable and profitable portrait studio there, a success that indicates her remarkable charisma, self-confidence, and drive. Lange's insightful and slightly eccentric portraits made her the favored portraitist of the city's economic elite—the Fleishhackers, Zellerbachs, Strauses, and Kahns—as well as the artistic elite, which included Yehudi Menuhin, Mischa Elman, and Ernst Bloch. Lange married the then well-known "western" painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children, and her portrait photography was the family's main source of support until the marriage ended in 1935.
As the Depression hit, Lange's rich clients and her marriage began to seem confining beyond her endurance. She started to move around San Francisco, photographing darker, poorer, more intense scenes. These pictures came to the attention of University of California-Berkeley economist and reformer Paul Schuster Taylor, who hired her to illustrate his exposés of the brutal working and living conditions of migrant farmworkers. Lange fell doubly in love, with Taylor and with the challenges and rewards of this so-called documentary photography (a phrase she hated). She divorced Dixon and married Taylor, and their marriage was thereafter a collaboration in work as well as life.
Taylor's salary from the university and the federal government's new interest in photographic documentation provided Lange with the economic basis to explore new possibilities in her medium. Between 1935 and 1945, she worked for the Farm Security Administration, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the War Relocation Authority, and the Office of War Information. She traveled extensively throughout the United States, often spending months at a time on the road in sweltering southern summers, struggling to keep dust out of her cameras and to develop film in motel bathrooms. Along with Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and others, Lange documented the Dust Bowl, agricultural poverty, and, later, wartime defense workers. Among her most powerful work was a series of photographs of the Japanese internment, pictures so critical that many of them were suppressed by the agency that hired her to make them.
Because the pictures taken during this time belonged to the federal government, they were in the public domain and could be reproduced without charge and without permission. Their emotional power touched viewers like no other photographer's work did. Her portrait of a destitute migrant mother with her children has been reproduced thousands of times, sometimes substituting different faces and different situations. Lange believed that her disability gave her a strong connection with those who suffered.
Although Lange was not in any conventional sense a politically oriented person, and her own community was primarily one of artists, she felt not only great sympathy for the victims of injustice, but also intense outrage at the injustices she saw. She was not attracted by the organized Left, but she was in sympathy with some of the Communist-led causes of the period, such as the farmworkers' struggles, the San Francisco general strike of 1934, and the defense of the Scottsboro "boys." She made many insightful and respectful pictures of blacks, Filipinos, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, although these were reproduced much less often than her photographs of whites. In her home state she was particularly incensed at the extreme exploitation of farmworkers and the violence directed at those who tried to unionize and improve their conditions by the powerful agribusinesses and their hired thugs.
After 1945, fighting illness for twenty years, Lange slowed her pace considerably, but turned out superb, lasting work. She accompanied Paul Taylor on several of his trips studying land tenure in underdeveloped countries, and she made many beautiful pictures in Vietnam, Egypt, and Indonesia. She also made a series on the work of a public defender in Oakland. This late work continued to reveal her often uncanny eye for human expressiveness and the complexity of the poor, so often stereotyped as simple.
See Also: DUST BOWL; EVANS, WALKER; FARM SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (FSA); PHOTOGRAPHY; ROTHSTEIN, ARTHUR; SHAHN, BEN.
Daniel, Pete; Merry A. Foresta; Maren Stange; and Sally Stein. Official Images: New Deal Photography. 1987.
Davidov, Judith Fryer. Women's Camera Work: Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture. 1998.
Kozol, Wendy. "Madonnas of the Fields: Photography, Gender, and 1930s Farm Relief." Genders 2 (summer 1988): 1–23.
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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was one of the best of the American photographers who used their art to document, and ultimately to alleviate, the human suffering caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s. As she viewed it, photography was not an end in itself, but a means of exploring the world so as to improve it.
Born of second generation German immigrants on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange was named Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn at birth. She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name after her father abandoned the family, one of two traumatic incidents in her early life. The other was her contraction of polio at age seven which left her lame throughout her life.
She attended public schools in New York City and from 1914 through 1917 was enrolled in the New York Training School for Teachers. At about this time she decided to become a professional photographer.
Lange worked in the photography studios of Arnold Gen the and Charles H. Davis and attended Clarence H. White's photography class at Columbia University before moving to San Francisco, where she established a portrait studio in 1919. In 1920 she married Maynard Dixon, a painter. They were divorced in 1935.
Her successful portrait business came to an end during the Depression, as she turned her attention to people caught in the trap of desperate poverty by a combination of a collapsed economy, natural disasters, and technological obsolescence. One of her best known pictures, the first to become widely recognized, was "White Angel Breadline" (1932), made outside her studio in San Francisco. A crowd of recently unemployed men are shown waiting for a handout; the centerpiece is a single figure of an elderly man hunched over a railing, holding a cup between his hands. The picture became one of the earliest of the decade to illustrate the plight of American lives disrupted by economic hardship.
Some of her work was exhibited at the Oakland studio of photographer Willard Van Dyke, who also wrote about her pictures in Camera Craft. At about the same time she began an association with Paul S. Taylor, a University of California sociologist and economist who began to use her work to accompany his studies of populations displaced by hard times. They were married in 1935, shortly after her divorce from Dixon, and collaborated on An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939).
As a result of the growing recognition of the quality of her work in 1935, Lange was invited by Roy Stryker to join the photography unit of the federally sponsored Resettlement Administration (soon to be named FSA, the well-known Farm Security Administration), under Stryker's direction. The small group of photographers, which included such notables as Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, remained in existence until 1942, when it was transferred to the Office of War Information. Some of Dorothea Lange's finest work, including the famous "Migrant Mother" (1936), was produced for FSA.
During World War II she was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the internment of Japanese-Americans for the duration of the war. The work done in the camps was not seen publicly until years later in the exhibition and book by Maisie and Richard Conrat, Executive Order 9066 (1972). Lange also worked in the Office of War Information, her photographs appearing uncredited in Victory magazine.
In 1945 she photographed the United Nations Conference in San Francisco for the State Department; did assignments for LIFE magazine, including "Three Mormon Towns" (1954) and "The Irish Country People" (1955); and recorded "Death of a Valley" (1960) for Aperture. Her career was crowned at the end of her life with a retrospective exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, which was shown in 1966, after her death from cancer in 1965.
Dorothea Lange was comfortable with everyone that she encountered, but particularly with the down-and-outers, the silent and invisible population suffering from circumstances beyond their understanding or control. Such people trusted her, and she viewed and exhibited them with compassion and respect. Her ease with subjects, dedication to the improvement of their lot, and mastery of her chosen form of communication help place her work among the most enduring of its kind.
The most extensive and authoritative study of Lange's life and work is Milton Melter's engrossing Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life (1978). Dorothea Lange also appears in Notable American Women (1980). The Museum of Modern Art publication that accompanied the exhibition of her work at the end of her life provides a cross-section of her production, which is explicated with an introduction by George P. Elliot. For a good example of her activities during the 1930s, see An American Exodus (1939), which she co-authored with Paul S. Taylor. □