Who was Dorothea Lange?

Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 to October 11, 1965) was an influential documentary photographer. Lange is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.

Born in Hoboken New Jersey, Lange began her career in New York, later migrating to San Francisco where she opened a portrait studio in 1918. With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street.

Her searing studies of homelessness immediately captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the FSA. From 1935 to 1940, Lange's work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten, particularly displaced farm families and migrant workers, to public attention. Distributed free of charge to newspapers across the country, her poignant images quickly became icons of the era.

Her most famous photograph, commonly known as Migrant Mother , was the sixth and last frame taken of Lange's haphazard visit to a migrant workers' campsite. She had initially passed the campsite, but twenty minutes later, she turned around on the highway to take another look. Rumor has it that the two younger children's faces are turned away from the camera because they were smiling and laughing during the picture, but none of the six frames shows them laughing or smiling. Lange had them turn away to give the image a more solemn, desperate mood. 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.

In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans (Nisei) to relocation camps in the American West.

Lange was hired by the San Francisco Regional Office of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in early April 1942 as a photographer investigator to document the evacuation of Japanese Americans from Northern California. Lange completed her work at the end of July 1942.

For decades after the war, images she made of U.S. soldiers carrying weapons as they rounded up the Japanese-Americans were censored by the U.S. government. Her photograph of young Japanese American girls pledging allegiance to the flag shortly before she was abducted to the camps is a haunting reminder that patriotism is no protection for the children of unwanted immigrants.

According to the Oakland Museum, repository for most of Lange's work, it has been estimated that of the approximately 13,000 existing photographs taken for the federal government, Lange made over 700. According to Oakland Museum archivists, "because of the political nature of her relocation photography, she was required to turn over to the WRA all of her negatives, prints, and undeveloped film; thus, very little of this material is contained within the museum's archive." Following the end of the war, a complete file of Lange's WRA negatives and prints was placed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., with a duplicate set of prints placed at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

Lange's first husband was noted Western Painter Maynard Dixon. Her second husband was Paul Schuster Taylor, a social scientist, who collaborated with her on her social documentations. He also took the well-known photographs showing her on top of a truck with her camera.

In 1952 Lange was one of the founders of Aperture.

On October 11, 1965, Lange died in San Francisco at the age of seventy.