Historical Photographers: Dorothea Lange

Up until now, our line-up of historical photographers has been dominated by men. Though men do, by and large, outnumber women in the history of photography, that does not mean that women are altogether absent. Today, there are many female photographers of great fame and renown. In their honor, today’s entry will discuss one of their premiere role models: Dorothea Lange.

Dorothea Lange is most well-known for taking the photo “Migrant Mother” during the Great Depression. She was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895. When she was twelve years old, her father abandoned the family and she adopted “Lange” as her last name in place of his (“Lange” was her mother’s maiden name). At age 18, she decided to study photography as a student at Columbia University in New York. Once her studies were complete, she apprenticed to several well-known photographers, Arnold Genthe among them, in New York before moving to San Francisco in 1918 where she opened a successful portrait studio.

When the Great Depression hit, Lange took her lenses out of the studio and into the field. Her photographs of the homeless and the poor earned her attention from other photographers as well as employment with the Farm Security Administration. As the Depression dragged on, Lange divorced her then-husband Maynard Dixon and married Paul Taylor, an economics professor. Together Taylor and Lange recorded information in the form of both photographs and economic data concerning the plight of the poor during the Depression. In 1936, she took one of the two most famous photos of her career: the photo called “Migrant Mother.” Speaking later about the experience of taking photos of Florence Owen Thomas and her children, Lange said:

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.

In 1941, Lange received the Guggenheim Award for her coverage of the poor and frequently forgotten during the Depression. However, she gave up this prestigious award after the attack on Pearl Harbor so that she could document the internment of Japanese-American citizens. Working with the War Relocation Authority, she captured images of Japanese-Americans as they were rounded up and relocated to the internment camps. She also documented life at Manzanar, the first permanent camp. Her images were so obviously critical that they were impounded by the Army and kept out of circulation. They can be viewed now at the National Archives on the website of the Still Photographs Division, and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

As WWII drew to a close in 1945, Lange was invited to join the first fine art photography school at the California School of Fine Arts by Ansel Adams. She accepted and went on to co-found Aperture magazine in 1952. Aperture would run the photo documentary of the death of Monticello, California following the building of Lake Berryessa by damming the Putah Creek. She was originally commissioned to do the piece with Pirkle Jones for Life magazine. However, when Life declined to run the story, Aperture covered it for them.

Suffering from numerous gastric problems as well as post-polio syndrome, Lange passed away in 1965 but remains one of the most well-known photographers of the Great Depression to this day.