“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.” – Dorothea Lange
Art and literature were big parts of Lange’s upbringing. Her parents were both strong advocates for her education, and exposure to creative works filled her childhood.
After attending the New York Training School for Teachers, Dorothea Lange who’d had not showed any interest in academics, decided to pursue photography as a profession after a stint working in a NYC photo studio. She went on to study the art form at Columbia University, and then, over the next several years, she was an apprentice, working for several different photographers, including Arnold Genthe, a leading portrait photographer. In 1917, she also studied with Clarence Hudson White at his prestigious school of photography.
By 1918, Lange was living in San Francisco and soon running a successful portrait studio. With her husband, muralist Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons and settled into the comfortable middle-class life.
Lange’s first real taste of documentary photography came in the 1920s when she traveled around the Southwest with Dixon, mostly photographing Native Americans. With the onslaught of the Great Depression in the 1930s, she trained her camera on what she started to see in her own neighbourhoods in San Francisco such as labor strikes and breadlines.
In the early 1930s, she met Paul Taylor, a university professor and labor economist. Their attraction was immediate, and by 1935, both had left their respective spouses to be with each other.
Over the next five years, the couple traveled extensively together, documenting the rural hardship they encountered for the Farm Security Administration, established by the U.S. Agriculture Department. Taylor wrote reports, and Lange photographed the people they met. This body of work included Lange’s most well-known portrait, “Migrant Mother,” an iconic image from this period that gently and beautifully captured the hardship and pain of what so many Americans were experiencing. The work now hangs in the Library of Congress.
Following America’s entrance into World War II, Lange was hired by the Office of War Information (OWI) to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans. In 1945, she was employed again by the OWI, this time to document the San Francisco conference that created the United Nations.
Lange passed away in October 1965.
While Lange sometimes grew frustrated that her work didn’t always provoke society to correct the injustices she documented, her photography has endured and greatly influenced generations of documentary photographers.