Ms. Lange and her car - Photo Public Domain

Ms. Lange and her car – Photo Public Domain

I’m starting a series of sorts here at Photofocus. The goal is to get you to realize the value of studying (or at least knowing about) the work of the photographic masters. No – I’m not talking about the cool kids with lots of “fans” on Flickr or Facebook. I’m talking about people who never lived to see such things. Now instantly, some of you who are young will decide this can’t help you because after all if it isn’t new – it isn’t cool – but you should read on anyway. You might just learn something.

Let’s start with Dorothea Lange. She was born in 1895 and died in 1965. Ms. Lange studied photography at Columbia University in New York City and in 1919 moved to San Francisco where she made her living as a portrait photographer. Her early life was somewhat tragic in that her father abandoned her and she contracted polio, but she used these negative experiences to help guide her to a life with meaning. While she started as a simple portraitist, the Great Depression became the pressing social issue of the time, and she abandoned her work as a portrait photographer and became a documentary photographer.

She understood the importance of photography. She used it for good. Ms. Lange thought that photography could be used to bring about, or at least document social change. Her work had great purpose. She photographed displaced families during the Great Depression and then the Japanese internment camps started during World War II.

Her work was so on target, so compelling that the U.S. government censored it. The government was worried that her compelling images of the suffering she documented would undo the plan to keep the camps going.

If you study Ms. Lange’s work you’ll note that she focused on the subject’s mood more often than not as the theme of her imagery. She managed to make character studies that conveyed more than just the information you might want about a single subject – but about the time she was living in.

Migrant Mother by D. Lange – Photo Public Domain

Her most famous photo – “Migrant Mother” is a good example of that. If you want to think about photographic storytelling, look at that photo.

She did achieve some recognition during her lifetime. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography and none other than Ansel Adams invited her to accept a position on the faculty at the California School of Fine Arts – hanging out with other notables including Minor White and Imogen Cunningham.

She co-founded “Aperture” magazine and her work also appeared in “Life” magazine. After her death, she was shown at the Whitney Museum and inducted into the California Hall of Fame. A school was named after her in Nipomo, California where she made the “Migrant Mother” photograph.

When I think of photographic heroes – Ms. Lange’s name always comes to mind. She overcame incredible odds, coming from a poor, immigrant family whose father left her – polio – a world where women didn’t have equal rights, etc. Yet her eye, her compassion and her desire to use a camera to tell stories left a legacy that will last well beyond her.

Take some time to research Ms. Lange’s work. I guarantee you it will make you a better photographer, and probably a better human being too. I know it did me.


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  1. […] me. Of course, it’s an idea I never executed, but whatever … he is beginning a series on Photographers You Should Know About with a look at Dorothea Lange, one of the stars of the Farm Securities Administration in the […]

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