Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer best known for her heart-wrenching portraits of victims of the Great Depression--migrant workers, tattered children, and the inhabitants of food lines and tent cities. Her photographs, many of which were taken on behalf of federal relief agencies, are visual testaments that define the Depression and Dust Bowl years of American history. Migrant Mother (1936)--which depicts a 32-year-old mother of seven, appearing worn and much older than her actual age, holding a baby with two other children draped on her shoulders--is one of the most famous photographs of the era. "These powerful images," Nancy Wood wrote in View Camera, "have become icons of rural American life; a simplicity and innocence emanate from these pictures, a glimpse into a vanished America that provokes nostalgia and reverence."
Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. As a young girl, she had several experiences that informed her later work. For example, she contracted polio at the age of seven, which permanently affected her right leg and caused her to walk with a limp. This affliction helped her both identify with and bond with the subjects of her photos. In addition, her father abandoned the family when she was twelve, giving her an understanding of loss and hardship. In addition, as a New York City public schools student she learned to relate to people from various social and economic groups.
Lange worked as a photographic assistant in New York from 1912 to 1917. She was encouraged to make and develop her own pictures by New York photographer Arnold Genthe, who produced portraits of prominent members of society. She also studied briefly with Clarence White at Columbia University. In 1919, Lange moved to San Francisco to become a free-lance photographer. She established her own portrait studio and soon gained a solid reputation among the well-to-do. She tended to use a soft focus in these early studio works, such as Clayburgh Children, San Francisco (1924). She married Maynard Dixon in 1920, and took her first non-studio pictures during travels with her husband in the high desert of Arizona, including a strong documentary image of a Hopi Indian. Around 1930, she decided to concentrate on taking pictures of interesting people in social contexts.
Lange made her first photograph of victims of the Depression, White Angel Bread Line, in San Francisco in 1932. Her work attracted the attention of Willard Van Dyke, a member of the avant-garde photographic group f/64, and led to her first show at his gallery. Her photographs also began to appear in magazines around that time. In 1934, Lange began working with Paul Taylor making photographs for the California Rural Rehabilitation Administration. The idea behind the photographic undertakings of this and other federal agencies was to document socio-economic conditions in various parts of the country, create empathy and concern for victims of the Depression, and thus generate popular support for the New Deal reforms proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt. Such projects were designed to take advantage of the fact that photography was just emerging as an artistic medium with the advent of popular magazines heavily illustrated with photographs.
In 1935, Lange divorced her first husband and married Taylor. They traveled together throughout the American West, Midwest, and South making documentary photographs for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange created many of her best-known photographs over the next five years, some of which were published in her 1939 book American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. She always approached her subjects in the same manner: striking up a conversation; allowing children to play with her camera equipment; and asking permission to take a series of photographs. She preferred to photograph people outdoors in natural light, and from a low angle. Although Lange's images are realistic, and her subjects often appear worried or simply resigned, she always treated people with dignity and compassion.
After leaving the FSA in 1939 due to creative differences with Roy Stryker, the director of the photographic project, Lange worked with several other federal agencies during World War II. She completed a series of photographs of Japanese internment camps for the Office of War Information, for example, and she also produced a series on religious groups in the rural United States. Her travel was strictly limited during the late 1940s because of poor health, so she concentrated on photographing her family and immediate surroundings. She completed various magazine assignments in the 1950s, including "Death of a Valley," a series about a devastated dam site which led to an exhibition and book. When her husband worked as an international consultant on agrarian sociology, she traveled overseas with him and photographed people in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Dorothea Lange died of cancer in 1965, shortly before the opening of a major retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "She sees the final criticism of her work in the reaction to it of some person who might view it fifty years from now," Willard Van Dyke wrote of Lange in a 1934 article for Camera Craft. "It is her hope that such a person would see in her work a record of the people of her time." Considering the continued recognition given to her work, there is little doubt that Lange achieved her goal.
Born: Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, 26 May 1895, Hoboken, New Jersey. Education: Attended the Training School for Teachers in New York City and briefly studied at Columbia University, 1915-17; trained with Clarence White and began career as a society photographer. Family: Married Maynard Dixon, 1920 (divorced, 1935); two sons. Later married Paul Taylor. Career: Documentary photographer; free-lance photographer and portraitist, 1919-34; after 1934 began photographing events surrounding the Great Depression; recorded elements of poverty, migrant workers, the hungry and homeless for the Federal Resettlement Administration, 1935-42; did not work from 1945 to 1951 due to illness; traveled widely in 1950s and early 1960s, producing work in Ireland, East Asia, South America, and Middle East. Awards: Guggenheim Foundation Grant, 1941; Honor Roll, American Society of Magazine Photographers, 1963. Died: Marin County, California, 11 October 1965, of cancer.
- 1934: Brockhurst Studio, Oakland, California
- 1960: San Francisco Museum of Art, California
- 1960: Oakland Art Museum, California
- 1966: Museum of Modern Art, New York (retrospective)
- 1966: Oakland Art Museum, California (retrospective)
- 1971: Oakland Art Musuem, California (retrospective)
- 1973: Victoria and Albert Museum, London (retrospective)
- 1978: Oakland Art Museum, California (retrospective)
- 1994: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California (traveling retrospective)
- Work included in such major exhibitions as 6 Women Photographers, Family of Man, and The Bitter Years, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Women of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Art; and Photography in the Twentieth Century, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, with Paul Taylor, 1939
To A Cabin, with Margetta K. Mitchell, Grossman, 1973
Dorothea Lange Looks at the American Country Woman, text by Beaumont Newhall, Amon Carter Museum and Ward Ritchie, 1967
An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, with Paul Taylor, rev. ed., Yale University Press, 1969
Photographs of a Lifetime, text by Robert Coles, 1982.
"Death of a Valley," with Pirkle Jones in Aperture, vol. 8, no. 3, 1960.
Dorothea Lange, exhibition catalog with text by George P. Elliott, New York 1966
Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life, by Milton Meltzer, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1973
From the Library of Congress: Dorothea Lange Farm Security Administration Photographs 1935-39, Vols. I and II, Katherine Northrup and Howard Levin, eds., Text-Fiche Press, 1980
Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition, by Karin Becker Ohrn, Louisiana State University Press, 1980
Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, exhibition catalog with text by Therese Thau Heyman, Sandra S. Phillips, and John Szarkowski, San Francisco 1994
The Photographs of Dorothea Lange, exhibition publication with text by Keith F. Davis, Kansas City, Missouri 1995.
"Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans," by Richard Conrat and Maisie Conrat, California Historical Society, 1972
"Celebrating a Collection, The Work of Dorothea Lange," by Therese Thau Hexman, Oakland Museum of Art, 1978
"Dorothea Lange" by Jo Leggett in Photo Metro, June/July 1994
"Dorothea Lange: American Photographs" by Judith Bell in Rangefinder, August 1994
"Migrant Mother" by Carole Henry in Art Education, May 1995.