Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange photogaph

Dorothea Lange / Getty Images

Known for: documentary photographs of 20th century history, especially the Great Depression and her image of a "Migrant Mother"

Dates: May 26, 1895 - October 11, 1965
Occupation: photographer
Also known as: Dorothea Nutzhorn Lange, Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn

More About Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, born in Hoboken, New Jersey as Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, contracted polio at seven and the damage was such that she limped for the rest of her life.

When Dorothea Lange was twelve, her father deserted the family, perhaps fleeing charges of embezzlement. Dorothea's mother first went to work as a librarian in New York City, taking Dorothea with her so that she could attend public school in Manhattan. Her mother later became a social worker.

After graduating from high school, Dorothea Lange began to study to become a teacher, enrolling in a teacher training program. She decided instead to become a photographer, dropped out of school, and studied by working with Arnold Genthe and then Charles H. Davis. She later took a photography class at Columbia with Clarence H. White.

Beginning Work

Dorothea Lange and a friend, Florence Bates, traveled around the world supporting themselves with photography. Lange settled in San Francisco because they were robbed there in 1918 and she needed to take a job. She began her own portrait studio in San Francisco by 1919, which soon became popular with civic leaders and the wealthy of the city. The next year she married an artist, Maynard Dixon. She continued her photography studio, but also spent time promoting her husband's career and caring for the couple's two sons.

The Depression

The Depression ended her photography business. In 1931 she sent her sons to boarding school and lived separately from her husband, giving up their home while they each lived in their respective studios. She began photographing the effects of the Depression on people. She exhibited her photographs with the help of Willard Van Dyke and Roger Sturtevant. Her 1933 "White Angel Breadline" is one of the most famous of her photographs from this period.

Lange's photographs were also used to illustrate the sociology and economics work for University of California's Paul S. Taylor. He used her work to back up grant requests for food and camps for the many Depression and Dust Bowl refugees coming to California. In 1935, Lange divorced Maynard Dixon and married Taylor.

In 1935, Lange was hired as one of the photographers working for the Resettlement Administration, which became the Farm Security Administration or RSA. In 1936, as part of the work of this agency, Lange took the photograph known as "Migrant Mother." In 1937, she returned to the Farm Security Administration. In 1939, Taylor and Lange published An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion.

World War II

The FSA in 1942 became part of the Office of War Information. From 1941 to 1943, Dorothea Lange was a photographer for the War Location Authority, where she took photographs of interned Japanese Americans. These photos were not published until 1972; another 800 of them were released by the National Archives in 2006 after a 50-year embargo. She returned to the Office of War Information from 1943 to 1945, and her work there was sometimes published without credit.

Later Years

In 1945, she began working for Life magazine. Her features included the 1954 "Three Mormon Towns" and the 1955 "The Irish Country People."

Plagued by illness from about 1940, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1964. Dorothea Lange succumbed to the cancer in 1965. Her last published photo essay was The American Country Woman. A retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966.

Books by Dorothea Lange:

  • Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor. An American Exodus. 1939. Revised 1969. Original edition reprinted 1975.
  • Dorothea Lange. Dorothea Lange Looks at the American Country Woman: A Photographic Essay. Commentary by Beaumont Newhall. 1967.
  • Dorothea Lange and Margaretta K. Mitchell. To a Cabin. 1973.
  • Dorothea Lange. Photographs of a Lifetime. Essay by Robert Coles and afterword by Therese Heyman. 1982.

Books About Dorothea Lange:

  • Maisie and Richard Conrat. Executive Order 9066: the Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. Introduction by Edison Uno, epilogue by Tom C. Clark. 1972.
  • Milton Melter. Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life. 1978.
  • Therese Thau Heyman, with contributions by Daniel Dixon, Joyce Minick, and Paul Schuster Taylor. Celebrating a Collection: The Work of Dorothea Lange. 1978.
  • Howard M. Levin and Katherine Northrup, editors. Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935-1939, from the Library of Congress. Introduction by Robert J. Doherty, with writings by Paul S. Taylor. 1980.
  • Jan Arrow. Dorothea Lange. 1985.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Dorothea Lange." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Dorothea Lange. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Dorothea Lange." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).