Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

John Gehl sends us this bio of the American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), whose studies of the victims of the Great Depression of the 1930s greatly influenced later documentary and journalistic photographers. In the 1930s Lange was selected by the state of California and later by the federal Farm Security Administration to make a pictorial record of  the migration of farm people from the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains region, especially the "Okies" from the state of Oklahoma. To get the pictures she needed, she joined the migratory workers and lived with them in their camps for considerable periods of time. In 1939, together with her husband, Paul S. Taylor, she published a collection of her photographs in An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. Her now famous 1936 portrait, "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California," hangs in the Library of Congress, and in 1960
it was selected by a University of Missouri panel as one of the 50 best photographs of the preceding half-century.

Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. She first studied at the New York Training School for Teachers, but then decided to pursue her interest in photography by joining the Photo-Secession group, at Columbia University, where she studied under the photographer Clarence White. At age 20 she decided to travel around the world, earning money as she went by selling her photographs. She was in San Francisco when her money ran out,
so in 1916 she settled there, opened a portrait studio, and began the career that would establish her as a creative portrait photographer of the first rank.  When the Great Depression came, Lange began photographing the
homeless men who wandered the streets, capturing their hopeless condition in such pictures as her 1932 "White Angel Breadline." The recognition she received from these photographs resulted in her being hired by the federal
Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration) to bring the conditions of the poor to public attention. Her photographs of migrant workers, which she captioned with the workers' own words, were
partly responsible for moving the government to create relief programs and establish camps for the migrants.

By 1934 Lange had earned the solid reputation that made her first exhibition a success. Two years after the 1939 publication of her photo collection of migrant workers, she received a Guggenheim fellowship that she would shortly give up to make a photographic record of the post Pearl Harbor mass evacuation of Japanese-Americans to detention camps. After World War II, she did a number of photo-essays for Life magazine, including life in California, in Mormon towns and villages, as well as other subjects photographed in Asia, Egypt, Ireland, and South America. Her reputation grew in these later years despite long periods of inactivity because of  illness. In 1965 she died in San Francisco, and in the following year her memory was honored by a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

for Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime

RH: A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.  A book on the depression does not have the impact of photographs.  WAIS would be especially interested in her pictures of foreign countries.  Incidentally, I knew Paul Taylor, who taught at Berkeley.

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: E-mail to Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 11, 2004