Known for her photographs during the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) spent her life capturing beauty out of desolation. She has become one of the most famous documentary photographers in history not only because of her talent to connect with her subjects, but also because she was able to capture the despair of the Great Depression in one image: her iconic black and white photograph, Migrant Mother. Lange had a keen eye for capturing emotion, and in Migrant Mother, she captured not only one mother’s worry and suffering, but the collective emotion of despair and poverty people faced during that time period. Lange accomplished this by connecting and listening to the stories of the people of the Great Depression. Author of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits Linda Gordon describes Lange as having an “ . . . extraordinary power to connect with all sorts of people, to draw them out.”
On May 26, 1895 Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn, but she dropped her last name and took her mother’s maiden name after her father and mother divorced. Dorothea was raised in a middle class family in the suburb Hoboken, New Jersey to second generation German immigrants. When she was only seven years old, she contracted polio which created a limp in her right leg. Though traumatizing at a young age, later in her life she appreciated the effects of the illness. She once stated, “It was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.”
While growing up, Dorothea's parents fostered an artistic and educated environment. She attended Wadleigh High School for Girls, but her interest for photography struck when she started studying at Columbia University in New York City. During her studies she was taught by Clarence H. White and apprenticed in different photography studios around New York City. After working in many different photography studios and graduating from Columbia, Lange and a friend traveled around the world in 1918. While in San Francisco, Lange was robbed and decided to settle on the west coast. About after a year of arriving in San Francisco, she opened up her own portrait studio which was very successful. She then met muralist Maynard Dixon who she married and had two children with. All together they lived a comfortable life.
When the Great Depression started to plague the world in the 1930’s Dorothea Lange gave up her studio work to document the suffering she was witnessing around her. She switched from photographing in her portrait studio to photographing unemployed homeless people on the San Francisco streets. Her image of a homeless man facing the opposite direction of on-commers in front of a soup kitchen, White Angel Breadline, led to her employment with the Resettlement Administration (RA) which later was named the Farm Security Administration (FSA). When President Roosevelt created the “Second New Deal” in 1935, the FSA was formed as a federal effort to end rural poverty and improve conditions for rural farmers as well as help improve farms destroyed by the Dust Bowl crisis in America. Within the FSA program, a small photography program was established where a group of photographers were assigned to document poor farmers in rural areas. This group of photographers not only became important storytellers during the depression period but they also defined modern photojournalism. The three most famous photographers of this group were Gordon Parks, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
Before working with these programs, Lange and her husband divorced. She then married Paul Schuster Taylor a Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Together, they spent their next years documenting poverty and rural hardship. They also worked together to document exploitation of migrant laborers and sharecroppers. Paul Taylor would examine and collect economic data and Dorothea Lange would photograph. Her images and Taylor’s data were used in free newspapers across the country to distribute the information of and knowledge of this economic depression and how it exploited and affected the rural population across the United States.
Lange also photographed many of the rural people and the affects the Depression had on their lives. She was able to connect with these people and allow them to be become comfortable with her. Lange’s husband wrote about her methods of photographing these people and their struggles during this hardship, he noted that, “Her method of work was often to just saunter up to the people and look around, and then when she saw something that she wanted to photograph, to quietly take her camera, look at it, and if she saw that they objected, why she would close it up and not take a photograph, or perhaps she would wait until they were used to her.”
This ability to connect with the people she photographed, as well as her portrait experience, allowed her to create iconic and important images of the people who suffered during the Depression. Lange traveled to Nipomo, California where she was assigned to photograph a pea pickers whose crop was destroyed by freezing rain. Lange found a woman who was sitting in a tent with her children. Lange approached the woman and asked if she could take her photograph and the woman agreed. Lange took six different images of this mother and her children, one which became the iconic Migrant Mother. In this photograph the woman, Florence Thompson, gazes out into the distance with a worried expression while holding her sleeping baby as her other children clutch to her sides. Ben Phelan explains in a PBS article about Florence Thompson’s haunting expression, he writes, “At the time, the dust-blown interior of the United States was full of families like hers, whom poverty had forced off their land and into a life of wandering. Their poverty was total; they had nothing . . . Her worried, vacant expression seems to communicate what we, at our end of history, already know: Things were not going to get better for a long, long time.” Migrant Mother easily became one of the most famous photographs of the Great Depression.
Dorothea Lange often accompanied her photographs with words and quotes about the people and places she photographed. For Migrant Mother, she wrote in her notes, “‘We just existed. We survived. Let’s put it that way.’ She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that [she and her children] 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.” Dorothea Lange was able to capture the emotions and suffrage of all those who suffered during this time period. Florence Hamilton’s expressions embodies the people affected greatly by this economic depression, an expression which was all too familiar of rural farmers, migrants, and workers during this time period.
After her time photographing for the FSA Dorothea Lange returned back to San Francisco and was awarded with the a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941. However, after Pearl Harbor she instead started photographing internment of Japanese Americans with the War Relocation Authority (WRA) during World War II. She traveled across California to document the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from their homes. There were roughly more than 110,000 Japanese Americans who were forced to evacuate their homes, most of which were Americans. Dorothea Lange’s photographs included images of these families packing their bags and traveling to different relocation centers. She eventually would photograph the beginnings of the most popular of these interment camps, Manzanar. In Linda Gordon’s book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, she writes, “The documentary style she [Lange] had developed in the 1930s was inherently critical, and viscerally emotionally so . . . Of course the Army would not let her near any evidence of it, and she did her work so early in the development of the camps that resistance may not yet have developed.” Even though images were commissioned by the government they were impounded and not shown to the public even after the war ended. Linda Gordon who also wrote, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment writes, “A photographic record could protect against false allegations of mistreatment and violations of international law, but it carried the risk of course, of documenting actual mistreatment.” Lange’s images were kept a secret for almost 50 years and visually show how the United States government detained people without charging them of any crime based on their Japanese ethnicity--even if most were Americans.
Lange’s images sat in the National Archives until 2006. These images, even in today's society, remain of critical importance. Maurice Berger, in a Lens article from The New York Times writes, “Ms. Lange’s photographs remain as relevant as ever. Anti-immigrant, racist and nationalist fervor are again on the rise. And some are championing the censoring, limiting or discrediting of reporting in order to manipulate news and information.”
After photographing the Internment of Japanese Americans, iconic landscape photographer, Ansel Adams invited Lange to teach at the California School of Fine Arts photography department with Minor White and Imogen Cunningham. Lange’s accomplishments did not end there, she then went on to co-founding the magazine Aperture with other well-known photographers. Lange continued to create work and was commissioned by Life magazine for a couple of different assignments, one included photographing displacement of residents from the Putah Creek damming in California.
Lange unfortunately developed post-polio syndrome as well as esophageal cancer and died on October 11, 1965 when she was 70. Soon after her death, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City had a retrospective of her life’s work. Even today, her work is world-renowned and collected by different galleries and collections. In 2008, Dorothea Lange was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
One of the most important photographers of her time, Dorothea Lange’s images have truly impacted history. Lange was a visual storyteller, she used her camera as a tool to document the hardships people faced, hardships which society did not necessarily see on a daily basis. She connected with her subjects, creating extraordinary emotion in her images by hearing their stories and because of this her images remain a crucial visuality of history. Dorothea Lange’s photographs act as an open door for us to explore history as it happened and help us better understand the adversities of not only the Great Depression but also the misfortune of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Dorothea Lange extraordinary photographs are a visual gateway to important moments in time, the lives that lived before. Lange truly understood the importance of photography as a tool for documentation, she once stated, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
Written by Alexis Hagestad
Images from FSA owned by the Library of Congress
Japanese Concentration Camp Images are from Anchor Editions website