Born: May 26, 1895
Born Place: Hoboken, New Jersey, United States
Died: October 11, 1965
Death Place: San Francisco, California, United States
On view: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Period: Social realism
Known for: Documentary photography, photojournalism
Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965) was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs influenced the development of documentary photography and humanized the consequences of the Great Depression.
Dorothea Margaretta 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 “grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side … and attended PS 62 on Hester Street, where she was one of the only gentiles — quite possibly the only — in a class of 3000 Jews.”
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 who 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.
In 1933, at the height of the Depression, about fourteen million people were out of work. Many of them drifted aimlessly, with no place to live, many times without food. In addition, the dust storms of the Midwest created economic havoc. About 300,000 men, women and children came to California in the 1930s, hoping to find work. These migrant families were routinely called “Okies” regardless of where they were from. They traveled in beat-up cars, wandering from place to place, following the crops. Lange began to photograph these people from her studio window. Later, she left the studio so she could photograph them in the streets of California. Lange felt she had, at last, found her purpose and direction in photography. She roamed the streets with her camera, portraying the extent of the social and economic upheaval of the Depression. She was no longer a portraitist. Neither was she a photojournalist. She became known as a “documentary” photographer.
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).
Lange learned to talk to her subjects when photographing them, which helped her to accompany her photographs with pertinent remarks. The titles of her works often were very personal and revealed a lot about her subjects.
DEATH AND LEGACY
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. It was MoMa’s first one-person retrospective by a female photographer. In February 2020, MoMA exhibited her work again, under the rubric “Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures,” prompting critic Jackson Arn to write that “the first thing” this exhibition “needs to do—and does quite well—is free her from the history textbooks where she’s long been jailed.” Contrasting her work with that of other 20th century photographers such as Eugène Atget and André Kertész whose images “were in some sense context-proof, Lange’s images tend to cry out for further information. Their aesthetic power is obviously bound up in the historical importance of their subjects, and usually that historical importance has had to be communicated through words.” That characteristic has caused “art purists” and “political purists” alike to criticize her work, which Arn argues is unfair: “The relationship between image and story,” Arn notes, was often altered by Lange’s employers as well as by government forces when her work did not suit their commercial purposes or undermined their political purposes. In his review of this exhibition, critic Brian Wallis also stressed the distortions in the “afterlife of photographs” that went often contrary to Lange’s intentions. – Finally, Jackson Arn situates Lange’s work alongside other Depression-era artists such as Pearl Buck, Margaret Mitchell, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Frank Capra, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood in terms of their role creating a sense of the national “We.”
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.