Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer, photojournalist and co-founder of a photography magazine ‘Aperture’. She is best remembered for her Great Depression-era photographs highlighting the plight of the poor, the forgotten and migrant workers. She had the knack of capturing poignant images that evoked feelings of compassion amongst the public. As a child, she was not academically inclined and suffered two tragedies in the form of polio and the abandonment by her father. She studied photography at Columbia university and interned with renowned photographers. She acquired a studio and began her career photographing the social elite in San Francisco. At the onset of the Great Depression, she trained her lens on the streets and her pictures under the employment of a government agency became her most famous works till date. Later, she also covered the internment of Japanese Americans in the aftermath of the attack on PearlHarbor. In later years, she travelled to other countries on assignments. She is also credited with influencing the evolution of documentary photography. She has been conferred with several awards after her death.
Childhood & Early Life
Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn was born on May 26, 1895, at New Jersey, USA, to Heinrich Nutzhorn and Johanna Lange. Her father was a lawyer. She had a younger brother, Martin.
At 7, Dorothea contracted polio that gave her a weak right leg and a permanently altered gait.
At 12, her parents divorced and she blamed her father for it. In vengeance, she dropped his last name and adopted her mother’s maiden name instead.
Though her parents had always promoted both education and art, she took more interest in the latter. Even before she graduated from ‘Wadleigh High School for Girls’, she dreamed of becoming a professional photographer.
In 1913, she reportedly attended ‘New York Training School for Teachers’, but decided to pursue photography instead.
Dorothea Lange enrolled at Columbia University, New York, and took the noted American photographer, Clarence H. White’s, photography class.
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Dorothea Lange took up apprenticeships at several New York photography studios, including that of Arnold Genthe, a successful portrait photographer.
In 1918, she moved to San Francisco and worked at a photography supply shop as a photograph finisher. There, she made the acquaintance of influential society people and noted photographers, who helped her set up her own portrait studio.
Soon after, Dorothea Lange began to get work capturing portraits of San Francisco’s well-heeled residents.
By the time the Great Depression struck in 1929, she had grown tired of portraits and decided to focus her camera on the poor and hungry on the city streets.
By 1933, her photographs had caught the attention of the government and Dorothea Lange came under the employment of Farm Security Administration (FSA) that was set up to combat rural poverty during that time.
From 1935 to 1940, she and her second husband travelled across California and the South, documenting the squalid living conditions, poverty and hunger faced by migrant workers. Her photographs spread across the country via newspapers and achieved iconic status.
In 1936, two of her photographs from a California pea-pickers camp reached the federal authorities, which resulted in the prompt dispatch of food aid to the camps.
In 1941, Dorothea Lange was again assigned by a government agency ‘War Relocation Authority’ (WRA), to cover the internment of Japanese Americans in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her photographs of incarceration and conditions in the internment camps were very critical of the army, and were promptly seized.
Thereafter, she went on contracted assignments for ‘Life’ magazine to Utah, Death Valley and Ireland.
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In 1945, she was invited by renowned photographer, Ansel Adams, to teach fine art photography at ‘California School of Fine Arts’.
In 1952, she co-founded ‘Aperture’ a photography magazine.
Her 1933 photograph ‘White Angel Breadline’ that depicted the homeless and unemployed during the Great Depression, became her first most famous work.
Her 1936 photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ is one of her most recognized works and one of the most famous photographs in history.
Awards & Achievements
In 1941, a ‘Guggenheim Fellowship’ was awarded to her for her achievement in photography.
In Jan 1966, a self-curated retrospective of her work was showcased at the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ in New York and became the first one-person retrospective by a female photographer held there.
In 2003, Dorothea Lange was inducted into the ‘National Women’s Hall of Fame’.
In 2006, an elementary school in Nipomo, California, near the place where she had photographed ‘Migrant Mother’, was named after her.
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In 2008, she was inducted into the ‘California Hall of Fame’.
In 2018, she was honored with a mural depicting her and two other important women at Hoboken, New Jersey, her hometown.
Family & Personal Life
In 1920, Dorothea Lange married painter Maynard Dixon. The couple had two sons, Daniel (born 1925) and John (born 1930).
In 1935, she divorced Dixon and immediately thereafter, married agricultural economist, Paul Taylor.
Dorothea Lange lived in Berkeley, California for the rest of her life, but her health began to suffer because of post-polio syndrome and gastric issues.
On October 11, 1965, she passed away from esophageal cancer cancer in San Francisco, California.
Her 1936 photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ was said to have been the most reproduced photograph in the world.
She has been quoted as saying that polio was the most important thing that happened to her; it formed, guided, instructed, helped and humiliated her.