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Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965)

dorothea lange

Dorothea Lange is amongst the pre-eminent photographers of the 20th century. Whilst her career was varied, she is best known for her harrowing images of Depression era California.

Lange told the human story of this period, through images that continue to resonate as symbols of harship and tragedy today.



Dorothea Lange was born in 1895 to German immigrants. She attended school in New York and always showed an excited curiosity in the big city surrounding her (sometimes at the expense of school work!).

But early life was hardly plain sailing for Lange. Indeed, the sensitive understanding of human suffering, which clearly comes across in her later work, probably had its roots in her experiences growing up.

She contracted polio at the age of just 7, leaving her with a permanent limp. As if this weren't a sufficient affliction, it proved an invitation for school bullies to victimize and humiliate her. Lange could not even rely upon a stable family life, her father deserting the family when she was 12 years old.

So Lange clearly knew what suffering was. She knew how it felt to be dealt a tough hand, and for people around her to kick her when she was down. This must have heightened her empathy for those suffering souls she later immortalized in her photography.


A Fresh Start

Dorothea Lange's photographic education was given the benefit of Clarence White's tutelage, under whom she studied in New York. Following this, she made a clean break and headed west to settle in the Californian city of San Francisco, in 1918.

There she began a relationship with Maynard Dixon, whom she married in 1920 and had 2 sons with over the following years. She also established a sucessful photography business. At this stage in Lange's life everything seemed pretty settled, comfortable, maybe predictable.

Then the Wall Street Crash of '28. As the tumult of the Great Depression began to sweep America, Lange's innate curiosity made it impossible for her to stay within the confines of a studio. She was compelled to get out there and document the effects of this economic disaster on the lives of ordinary people.


A Change Of Direction

In 1935, Lange left Dixon and remarried the economist Paul Taylor. The two of them embarked upon an intellectual and photographic study of study of rural poverty and exploitation of migrant workers at this time.

For anyone familiar with Dorothea Lange's photography, this will immediately ring a bell. It was whilst travelling and documenting with Taylor, that Lange shot probably her most famous image of all, "Migrant Mother" (below).

It's one of those images that you really don't forget in a hurry. The woman's name is Florence Owens Thompson, and the picture is one of 6 that Lange shot of Florence and her family.

I suppose it's one of those shots that everyone will find their own meaning in. But, in terms of historical significance, this photograph tore through the U.S newspapers and raised sympathy for the plight of migrant workers.

For me, I think it's the combination of a dignified, intelligent and caring face with squalid, base and filthy conditions that partly lends the image so much power. There's also definitely something slightly heroic about the way she is fulfilling her role as mother, with 2 sons clinging to her on either side, despite everything. I think she looks as though she wants to say something, and be heard. A desire which this photograph duly granted.

Migrant Mother, 1936
Migrant Mother, 1936 Photographic Print
Lange, Dorothea


WWII - And More Hardship

Following a Guggenheim Fellowship award for excellence in photography, Dorothea Lange was given a commission by the War Relocation Authority.

The WRA had adopted a programme of re-housing Japanese Americans in internment camps, followng the attacks on Pearl Harbour. They were hoping for images that would cast the whole operation in a (falsely) positive light.

But the shots Lange produced were explicitly critical of the entire process, depicting loyal Japenese Americans being subjected to deeply unfair treatment. One famous picture (below) features children reciting the pledge of allegiance to the United States, moments before being rounded up.

American Children of Japanese, German and Italian Heritage, Pledging Allegiance to the Flag
American Children of Japanese, German and Italian Heritage, Pledging Allegiance to the Flag Photographic Print
Lange, Dorothea


Joining Forces With Ansel Adams

Lange had worked alongside Ansel Adams on the WRA project, and the two of them continued to work closely through the 40's and 50's. They both joined the staff of the first ever department of fine art photography, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Later, in '52, Lange and Adams joined forces with other leading contemporary photographers to found Aperture magazine. This was a publication dedicated to fine art photography, which contines to thrive today.


The Return Of Polio

Sadly, for many of Dorothea Lange's last 20 years, the polio that had so affected her childhood, retuned in the form of post-polio syndrome.

She remained happily married, but suffered consistent poor health, and died in 1965 at the age of 70.

In 2008, Dorothea Lange was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.


Have you explored the work of Dorothea Lange? What do you like about it? What do you think of Migrant Mother? Let me know your views in the comments...

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Margaret Bourke White Biography

10 Famous Women Photographers

10 Famous American Photographers

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