On Photography: The photographs of Dorothea Lange
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On Photography: Dorothea Lange, 1895-1965

“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.” -Dorothea Lange


Dorothea Lange trained to be a teacher when, in 1913, she decided to be a photographer. She studied for two years before moving to San Francisco to open the portrait studio she ran from 1919 to 1940.

Social conscience

Lange began photographing everyday people doing their everyday things. She would go to areas in San Franciso blighted by the Depression quite often. During this time she made the “White Angel Breadline” photograph. Her work caught the eye of Paul Taylor, a Berkely economist. They married in 1935 and worked together on the book “An American Exodus.”

Farm Security Administration (FSA)

For four year beginning in 1935, Dorothea Lange traveled for the FSA where she would make her most well-known photographs.  “Migrant Mother.”

Guggenheim Fellowship

1941 found Lange receiving the first fellowship awarded to a woman. From 1942 to 1945 she worked for the United States government making photographs of the Japanese-American internment camps and the founding of the United Nations.

Life magazine

Lange joined Life in 1954 working there until there cancer diagnosis in 1965. During that period she cemented her reputation as one of the country’s great documentary photographers. Her empathy with those who found themselves in front of her lens along with her ability to use the camera to record the elements of their situations gave her photographs amazing power. She devoted the last year of her life to creating a retrospective of her work that was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966.

“Migrant Mother”

Arguably, one of Dorothea Lange’s most memorable photographs, “Migrant Mother,” (It’s the upper left photo above. To its left is another of the seven exposures Lange made of her.) is a story worth retelling here. This excerpt is from notes on her exhibition at MOMA.

In early March, 1936, Dorothea Lange drove past a sign reading, “PEA-PICKERS CAMP,” in Nipomo, California. At the time, she was working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA), a Depression-era government agency formed to raise public awareness of and provide aid to struggling farmers. Twenty miles down the road, Lange reconsidered and turned back to the camp, where she encountered a mother and her children. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” she later recalled. “She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding field and birds that the children killed.” Lange took seven exposures of the woman, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, with various combinations of her seven children. One of these exposures, with its tight focus on Thompson’s face, transformed her into a Madonna-like figure and became an icon of the Great Depression and one of the most famous photographs in history. This image was first exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1940, under the title Pea Picker Family, California; by 1966, when the Museum held a retrospective of Lange’s work, it had acquired its current title, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Thanks to ICP for Lisa Hostetler’s bio of Dorothea Lange.

On Photography features mini-bios and images of inspirational photographers.

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