Dorothea Lange—Picturing America during Difficult Years

People alive today are no doubt the most photographed generation that has ever lived. Cell phones record our daily life and let us see what is going on in the rest of the world. We are accustomed to seeing people splashing through floods in India, scratching for food in drought-stricken fields in Africa and enduring bombings in Europe.  But documenting news through photographs is a fairly recent development. We owe the richness of our visual lives to a handful of photographers whose work made photography a vital source of information in the modern world. One of the influential women in this field was Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer who introduced thousands of Americans to the sight of the landscape of our country and the people who live and work in it.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange grew up in New York and its suburbs observing and living with people in the city. As a child she suffered a bout of polio that left her with one crippled leg. She always felt self-conscious about that, but she did not let it hinder her activities. While still a teenager, she made up her mind to be a photographer even before ever owning a camera. After graduating from high school, she travelled to California with a friend and settled in San Francisco. There she got a job in a photography studio and within a few years became a successful portrait photographer. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons.

Dorothea Lange

For ten years or more she and her husband lived busy social and professional lives. They became part of the progressive artistic life of San Francisco and knew many painters and journalists. Dixon loved painting scenes of the rural areas of California and Arizona, so the couple spent a great deal of time traveling in the Southwest. Unfortunately, when the 1920s ended with a financial crash, the market for photographic portraits and for paintings almost disappeared

Both Lange and her husband were ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of providing help for workers, including artists. For a decade starting in the early 1930s, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures and writing reports about conditions throughout the western and southern states. When the dust storms of the mid-thirties pushed thousands of people from their barren fields in Oklahoma and other Southern states out to California, Lange took some of her most famous pictures, including the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

As World War II started, the United States began to force Japanese American families who lived in Western states into internment camps. Lange proposed a project of documenting this move through photographs. She also interviewed people as they were being moved into the camps and documented their difficult lives. Most of her pictures of camp life, however, were impounded by the government and did not become available until after the war. They can be seen now in the National Archives and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California.

Migrant Mother” one of Lange’s most iconic photos of the Depression

Dorothea Lange’s life and work continued for twenty years after the end of WWII. For those who are interested in her life and achievements, Linda Gordon has written an absorbing biography. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009). Gordon not only makes Lange and her personal live come alive, she also paints a picture of California during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading about Lange’s life, we learn about how farming developed in the West and about the variety of Californians—Indigenous people, Latinos, and Easterners fleeing the Depression. Lange’s life was lived at a turning point for the country and her pictures help us understand how important those years were. You can find  the book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, at most public libraries.