Dorothea Lange



Dorothea Lange; Aperture Masters of Photography


An American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography.

Dorothea Margaret Nutzhorn was born on May 26, 1895, at 1041 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, New Jersey to second-generation German immigrants Heinrich Nutzhorn and Johanna Lange. She had a younger brother, Martin. She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name after her father abandoned the family when she was twelve years old, one of two traumatic events early in her life. The other trauma was her contraction of polio at age seven, which left her with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp. "It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," Lange once said of her altered gait. "I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."

Lange graduated from the Wadleigh High School for Girls, and although she had never operated or owned a camera, she was adamant that she would become a photographer upon graduating from high school. Lange was educated in photography at Columbia University in New York City in a class taught by Clarence H. White. She was informally apprenticed to several New York photography studios, including that of the famed Arnold Genthe. In 1918, she left New York with a female friend to travel the world, but was forced to end the trip in San Francisco due to a robbery, and settled there, working as a photograph finisher at a photographic supply shop where she became acquainted with other photographers and met an investor that aided in the establishment of a successful portrait studio. This business supported Lange and her family for the next fifteen years. In 1920, she married the noted western painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons, Daniel, born in 1925, and John, born in 1930.

Lange's early studio work mostly involved shooting portrait photographs of the social elite in San Francisco. At the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her lens from the studio to the street. Her photographs during this period bear kinship with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Her studies of unemployed and homeless people, starting with White Angel Breadline (1933), which depicted a lone man facing away from the crowd in front of a soup kitchen run by a widow known as the White Angel, captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

In December 1935, Lange and Dixon divorced, and she married economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. For the next five years they documented rural poverty and the exploitation of sharecroppers and migrant laborers. Taylor interviewed subjects and gathered economic data, while Lange took photographs. Lange resided in Berkeley for the rest of her life.

Working for the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, Lange's images brought the plight of the poor and forgotten—particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers—to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, Lange's poignant images became icons of the era.

One of Lange's most recognized works is Migrant Mother. The woman in the photograph is Florence Owens Thompson. In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph: “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 thirty-two. 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.” After Lange returned home, she told the editor of a San Francisco newspaper about conditions at the camp and provided him with two of her photographs. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included the images. In response, the government rushed aid to the camp to prevent starvation.

According to Thompson's son, Lange got some details of this story wrong, but the impact of the picture was based on the image of the strength and need of migrant workers. Twenty-two of the photographs she took as part of the FSA were included in John Steinbeck's The Harvest Gypsies when it was originally published in The San Francisco News in 1936.

In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for achievement in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious fellowship to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast on assignment for the War Relocation Authority (WRA). She covered the internment of Japanese Americans and their subsequent incarceration, traveling throughout urban and rural California to photograph families preparing to leave, visiting several temporary assembly centers as they opened, and eventually highlighting Manzanar, the first of the permanent internment camps. Much of her work focused on the waiting and uncertainty involved in the removal: piles of luggage waiting to be sorted, families wearing identification tags while awaiting transport. To many observers, her photograph of Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the flag shortly before they were sent to camp is a haunting reminder of the travesty of detaining people without charging them with a crime. Her images were so obviously critical that the Army impounded most of them, and they were not seen publicly during the war. Today her photographs of the internment are available in the National Archives on the website of the Still Photographs Division, and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1945, Ansel Adams invited Lange to teach at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), now known as San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Imogen Cunningham and Minor White also joined the faculty.

In 1952, Lange co-founded the photography magazine Aperture. In the mid-1950s, Life magazine commissioned Lange and Pirkle Jones to shoot a documentary about the death of Monticello, California and the subsequent displacement of its residents by the damming of Putah Creek to form Lake Berryessa. Because the magazine did not run the piece, Lange devoted an entire issue of Aperture to the work. The collection was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960. Another series for Life magazine, which Lange began in 1954, featured Martin Pulich, a lawyer, due to Lange's interest in how poor people were defended in the court system, which by one account grew out of her experience with her brother’s arrest and trial.

In the last two decades of her life, Lange's health declined. She suffered from gastric problems as well as post-polio syndrome, although the reoccurrence of the pain and weakness of polio was not yet recognized by most physicians. Lange died of esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965, in San Francisco, California, at age seventy. She was survived by her second husband, Paul Taylor, two children, three stepchildren, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Three months later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of her work, which Lange herself had helped to curate.

In 2003, Lange was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2006, an elementary school was named in her honor in Nipomo, California, near the site where she had photographed Migrant Mother. In 2008, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts; her son, Daniel Dixon, accepted the honor in her place. In October 2018, Lange's hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey honored her with a mural depicting Lange and two other prominent women from Hoboken's history, Maria Pepe and Dorothy McNeil


“She was a maverick. She never adopted a popular style, joined a movement, or worried—like most photographers of her generation—about the technique and purity of the photographic process.”

Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography; Christopher Cox, p. 5

“With the exception of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, who made studies of workers and slum conditions in New York in the 1890s and early 1900s, there were no precedents in America for the kind of photographs Lange now started to make. She instinctively joined a cultural movement to reveal the impact of economic and social changes in the lives of the American people.”

Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography; Christopher Cox, p. 9

‘Lange’s procedure on field trips was purposely not to plan the route in detail. She simply started out in an approved direction and drove until she saw something worth looking into. Preconceived ideas, in her case, minimized chances of success.”

Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography; Christopher Cox, p. 10

“At her most potent, Lange astounds with an ability to arouse deep feelings about our commonality with others. She made her FSA photographs artlessly personal by engaging people in conversation while moving naturally among them.”

Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography; Christopher Cox, p. 10

“Although Lange was photographing intimate subjects, she cultivated a kind of detachment. ‘That frame of mind that you need to to make a very fine picture of a very wonderful thing, is different from the frame of mind of being on the pavements, jostled and pushed and circulating and rubbing against people with no identity. You cannot do it by not being lost yourself.’”

Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography; Christopher Cox, p. 11

“She had once said that she could not judge a photographer’s work until she had seen it in its whole person.”

Dorothea Lange: Aperture Masters of Photography; Christopher Cox, p. 11




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