In 1933 San Francisco, a portrait photographer named Dorothea was starting to get restless. The neat, orderly world she saw inside her studio and her camera lens was not reflected outside the windows, where hundreds of unemployed men and women were filling the streets. As a woman, it was not guaranteed that Dorothea could gain their trust enough to photograph them. But one day, she simply couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer. She walked the streets of San Francisco armed with her camera and a deep respect for her subjects, and a new career in documentary photography was born.
Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1902, when she was seven, Dorothea contracted polio, which left her right leg and foot considerably weakened. She later attributed this experience as the “most important thing” that had ever happened to her, giving her humility and compassion for others. Although she was physically disabled for the rest of her life, it never slowed her down, and many people who met her had no knowledge of her disability. The ther childhood trauma leaving a profound impact on Lange was the separation of her parents when she was a teenager. She and her brother went with their mother to her maternal grandmother’s house. Dorothea attended six years of public school in New York City. She would spend the majority of her time walking in the city, observing the way people lived and the differences between rich, middle class, and poor. She later credited this experience with being what taught her to “see” rather than just to look. With such an intense interest in seeing and understanding the world around her, it’s no wonder that Lange felt so drawn to photography.
Lange enjoyed a successful career as a portrait photographer at her studio in San Francisco, but in the 1930’s she turned her camera to a darker subject. The Great Depression left thousands of men and women unemployed and/or homeless. Dorothea began traveling through the breadlines, labor demonstrations, and soup kitchens of San Francisco, documenting the suffering and resilience of those affected by the financial hardships. This bold and compassionate approach allowed her to get close to her subjects, and to capture pictures that few other photographers were able to get. Pictured right is her most famous photo of the San Francisco breadlines, titled White Angel Breadline.
Her photographs earned her national attention, and in 1935 she began a four-year commission with the Farm Security Agency (FSA). The Great Depression in America coincided with a major agricultural crisis in the Midwest, known as the Dust Bowl. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced to leave their land and make their way west in search of migrant work in places like California. These families were usually destitute, often on the verge of starvation. It was this beaten-down and desperate landscape that Lange was sent to document. She stayed in several migrant camps across the lower-midwest, getting to know the families that lived there. It was in one of these camps that Lange took what is arguably her most famous picture, and indeed one of the most famous American photographs, Migrant Mother (pictured left). Migrant Mother profoundly affected the American public. The photograph put a human face on the suffering that thousands of Americans were facing in a part of the country that could sometimes feel very far away from the cities and coasts of America.
After her work with the FSA, Lange was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Her experiences working with the marginalized and forgotten people of the country inspired her to eventually reject that fellowship to photograph the realities of Japanese internment. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, anti-Japanese fear and racism in America grew to a fever pitch. In 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that allowed for the internment of thousands of people of Japanese descent, simply for the reason of being Japanese. Lange was hired by the Office of War Information (OWI) to document the process, but her photographs of confused and frightened Japanese families being rounded into trains or barracks like cattle proved to be too incendiary. The OWI suppressed Lange’s photographs and they weren’t published for the first time until 2006.
Lange has been called a truly democratic photographer. Her work captured the lives of workers all over the country, no matter if they were black, white, Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese. The legacy she left behind didn’t just enrich the photographic world, but the wider world of American public conscious. She continued to work on social justice issues through her photography until her death in 1965 from esophageal cancer.