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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965): Photographer of the Impact of the Great Depression
By Linda Gordon, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of History, New York University
Introduction: Dorothea Lange was one of the leading documentary photographers of the Depression and arguably the most influential. Some of her pictures were reproduced so repeatedly and widely that they became commonly understood symbols of the human suffering caused by the economic disaster. At the same time her work functioned to create popular support for New Deal programs.
Early Years: Born in Hoboken, NJ, in 1895, Dorothea Lange’s life changed when her parents separated and her mother went to work. She attended school on the lower east side of New York, because her mother worked there, and often entertained herself after school by exploring the city on foot, despite her slight handicap as a result of childhood polio. Attracted by photography from her early teen years, Lange created a kind of apprenticeship for herself by persuading studio portrait photographers to hire her as a helper. She went to San Francisco in 1919 and lived the rest of her life in the Bay area. She almost immediately developed a fashionable and profitable portrait studio there, a success that indicates her remarkable charisma, self-confidence, and drive. Her insightful and slightly eccentric portraits made her the favored portraitist of the city’s economic elite–the Fleishhackers, Zellerbachs, Strauses, Kahns — as well as the artistic elite, such as Yehudi Menuhin, Mischa Elman, Ernst Bloch. She married the then well-known “western” painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children, and her portrait photography was the family’s main source of support until the marriage ended in 1935.
Later Years: As the Depression hit, her rich clients and her marriage began to seem confining beyond her endurance. She started to move around San Francisco photographing darker, poorer, more intense scenes. These pictures came to the attention of University of California/Berkeley economist and reformer Paul Schuster Taylor who hired her to illustrate his exposés of the brutal working and living conditions of migrant farm workers. Lange fell doubly in love, with Taylor and with the challenges and rewards of this so-called “documentary photography” (a phrase she hated). She divorced Dixon and married Taylor, and their marriage was consistently a collaboration in work as well as life.
Taylor’s salary from the University and the federal government’s new interest in photographic documentation provided Lange with the economic basis to explore new possibilities in her medium. Between 1935 and 1945,
Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the War Relocation Authority and the Office of War Information. She traveled extensively throughout the U.S., often spending months at a time on the road in sweltering southern summers, struggling to keep dust out of her cameras and to develop film in motel bathrooms. She “documented” the dust bowl, agricultural poverty, and, later, wartime defense workers, along with Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn and others. Among her most powerful work was a series of pictures of the Japanese internment, pictures so critical that many of them were suppressed by the agency that had hired her to make them.
Because the pictures taken during this time belonged to the federal government, they were in the public domain and could be reproduced without charge and without permission. Their emotional power touched viewers like no other photographers’ did. Her portrait of a destitute migrant mother with her children has been reproduced tens of thousands of times, sometimes substituting different faces and different situations. She believed that her disability gave her an almost telepathic connection with those who suffered.
Although she was not in any conventional sense a politically oriented person, and her own community was primarily one of artists, she felt not only great sympathy but also intense outrage at the injustices she saw. She was not attracted by the Left, but she was in sympathy with some of the Communist-led causes of the period–such as the farm workers’ struggles, the San Francisco general strike of 1934, the defense of the Scottsboro “boys.” She made many insightful and respectful pictures of blacks, Filipinos, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, although these were reproduced much less than her photographs of whites. In her home state she was particularly incensed at the extreme exploitation of farm workers and the violence directed at those who tried to unionize and improve their conditions by the powerful agribusinesses and their hired thugs.
After 1945, fighting illness for twenty years, she slowed her pace considerably but nevertheless turned out superb, lasting work. She accompanied Paul Taylor on several of his trips studying land tenure in underdeveloped countries and made many beautiful pictures in Vietnam, Egypt, Indonesia. She made a series on the work of a public defender in Oakland. This late work continued to reveal her often uncanny eye for human expressiveness and the complexity of the “poor,” so often stereotyped as simple.
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How to Cite This Article (APA Format): Gordon, L. (2010). Dorothea Lange (1895-1965): Photographer of the impact of the Great Depression. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/dorthea-lange/