“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
– Dorothea Lange
One of the greatest photographers in the medium’s illustrious history, Dorothea Lange is renowned for her powerful, humanistic depictions of depression-era America, which not only captured the zeitgeist of the period but helped dramatically reshape documentary photography thenceforth.
Born Dorothea Nutzhorn in the Industrial New Jersey city of Hoboken, she was the daughter of second-generation German immigrants and would adopt her mother’s maiden as a young adult, in an apparent protest against her father who had all but abandoned the family years earlier. At the age of seven, she contracted polio, which left her with a weakened right leg and foot. However, that didn’t stop her from wandering the streets of New York City’s Lower Eastside (where her mother worked), observing the quotidian life of others.
Perhaps it was this natural inquisitiveness that sparked her interest in the medium during her late teens and soon after, galvanized her to pursue photography academically at Columbia University, where she studied under the tutelage of Clarence H.White.
White was a member of the influential Photo-Secession movement, whose exponents sought to promote the medium as a form of fine art. They were advocates of pictorialism; the prioritizing of artistic composition, expression, and beauty, over realism, the apparent antithesis of the style for which Lange would later become renowned. Yet White’s influence on the young photographer was nevertheless significant. He would often set assignments that involved photographing everyday subjects which played to Lange’s sensibility, and which would become an important tenet of her practice.
Following her studies, Lange felt the urge to travel, and though her sights were set on more far-flung destinations, with limited resources, she made it only as far as the West Coast. She settled in San Francisco where she found employment in a photography studio, before opening her own a short while later.
Lange arrived in the city at the beginning of a period of economic prosperity that would become known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’. However, by the end of the decade, things had changed dramatically. A global economic downturn, the most severe ever experienced in the western industrialized world, led to drastic declines in output, massive unemployment, and acute deflation, which, along with severe droughts in the agricultural heartlands, plunged millions of Americans into severe poverty.
During the formative years of what is now known as ‘The Great Depression’, Lange began photographing the groups of men who wandered the streets of her adopted home city: the unemployed, homeless, and destitute; as well as protests and incidents of social unrest which were a regular occurrence. Forthright and uncompromising yet underpinned by a tender humanism, her images gained almost immediate recognition and were well received within artistic circles, notably, by a collection of photographers known as Group f.64, which included such influential figures as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston.
Her work also caught the eye of the progressive agricultural economist, Paul Schuster Taylor, who used her images to illustrate his articles and Federal reports. The pair formed a productive working relationship and later, a romantic one, which resulted in their marrying in 1935 after divorcing their respective spouses.
It was around this same time that Lange began her work for the Federal Resettlement Administration (later succeeded by the Farm Security Administration) a U.S. Agriculture Department agency that commissioned Lange and a group of other photographers (including Walker Evans) to document farmers and agricultural workers who had been particularly hard-hit by the depression.
Over the course of six years, she traveled across a total of 22 different states (often accompanied by Taylor), capturing the ‘Dust Bowl’ migration (the largest in American history) wherein millions of families left the drought-stricken ‘Plains States’, in search of employment and opportunity.
Her forthright depictions of decimated rural communities; migrant camps and their destitute residents, conferred a human countenance to a crisis that many Americans (many of whom were embroiled in their own cataclysms) were unaware of.
It is for these images that Lange is best remembered. Starkly honest and anthropological, yet rooted in compassion, they articulately impart the distinct sensibilities that made her unique; poignantly exemplified in her best-known image, and indeed, perhaps the most iconic example of social documentary photography in existence, ‘Migrant Mother’.
Her images had an unprecedented impact, helping to shape public perceptions and to engender support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ reforms, which would eventually help facilitate an end to the crisis.
The enduring impact of these images is such that today, they serve as surrogate memories for the period, sobering touchstones of a tragic time in American history, and simultaneously, an unprecedented attestation of photography’s ability to precipitate social and political change.
During the early 1940s, Lange turned her attention to a new kind of internal migration. Scores of rural workers relocated to the urbanized Bay Area in California to work in the military supply and training industries which were rapidly expanding to support the ongoing war effort. She captured the new arrivals both in and of outside work as they adjusted to their new surroundings; their conditions; loneliness, and at times, isolation (which was particularly potent for African Americans, who were ostracised by the local community)
She also documented the mass internment of Japanese in the United States. Beginning in 1942, some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, (the majority of whom lived on the West Coast) were removed from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps in the midwest. Few of these images were published, however, as the majority were impounded by the government and placed in the National Archives. They remained largely unseen until 2006, when they were published in a book entitled, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.
In 1939 she published her debut photobook, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, and following the war, she worked on a number of projects and notable photo essays for Life magazine.
She spent much of the final decade of her career traveling, capturing life across the globe in the same perceptive and forthright manner that had become her trademark. The final twelve months of her life were spent preparing for an extensive retrospective, which was to be held at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in early 1966. However, tragically, in 1965 she died of cancer, just months before the exhibition opened.
She will be remembered as an individual of immense strength and character, an honest and articulate visual author whose output was firmly grounded in compassion and whose influence on photography was truly profound.
“The contemplation of things as they are, without error of confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.”
All images © Dorothea Lange / © The Oakland Museum of California