Hoboken, New Jersey
San Francisco, California
Summary of Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange's images of Depression-era America made her one of the most acclaimed documentary photographers of the 20th century. She is remembered above all for revealing the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farmers and migrant workers in the 1930s, and her portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California(1936), has become an icon of the period. Since much of this work was carried out for a government body, the Farm Security Administration, it has been an unusual test case of American art being commissioned explicitly to drive government policy. After the Depression she went on to enjoy an illustrious career in photo-journalism during its hey-day, working for leading magazines such as Fortune and Life, and traveling widely throughout Asia, Latin America, and Egypt. She was instrumental in assembling the "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959, a renowned celebration of struggling post-war humanity.
- Many of Lange's documentary photographs borrow techniques from the lexicon of modernism - dramatic angles and dynamic compositions - to produce startling and often jarring images of her subjects. They never overpower the subjects themselves, but instead subtly direct the viewer to a fresh appreciation of the individual's plight.
- Lange's mature work proved that works of art and documents are not mutually exclusive, and that they can combine to produce beautiful, moving, and campaigning images. Her use of innovative techniques also proved that modernist art need not only convey the private feelings of the artist, but could also be put in the services of popular journalism.
- Lange's work, not only in the Depression but also in the post-war years, is characteristic of a lost age when a broad swath of the mass media was profoundly concerned with social issues. She saw herself firstly as a journalist and secondly as an artist, and she worked with a burning desire to effect social change by informing the public of suffering far away.
Biography of Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange grew up in a middle-class family in New Jersey. Her father, Heinrich Nutzhorn, worked as a lawyer, but also held several respected positions in local businesses, politics and the church, while her mother Johanna managed the household. Both parents were proponents of education and culture, and exposed both Dorothea and her brother Martin to literature and the creative arts.
Important Art by Dorothea Lange
One of Lange's better-known photographs, she often cited this particular scene when speaking about her breakthrough into documentary photography. "The discrepancy between what I was working on in the printing frames and what was going on in the streets was more than I could assimilate". Drawn to the lines of people waiting for worker's compensation or food relief, the image of this elderly man waiting for food at the soup kitchen embodies the depressed mood of the times. The camera focuses on the man's hat and face, which show an exploration of texture through comparison of the rough material and wrinkles of the hat, as well as his weathered skin; her unconventional use of the fence in the foreground to lend dynamism to the scene is also characteristic of use of modernist techniques.
In this picture, Lange is able to capture a striking look of anxiety on the face of her subject. Stranded in his car, the man's plight suggests the larger problems that society faced during the Great Depression. To add to the feeling of claustrophobia, Lange purposely cropped the photograph into a tighter composition, which originally included a woman sitting in the passenger's seat. Rather than suggesting he pose, Lange has caught him as if unawares, an effect which persuades us all the more of the truth of the image.
Probably the most famous of Lange's photographs, the description she wrote of her encounter with Florence Owens Thompson reveals that it left a deep impression on her. "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tyres from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me... I knew that I had recorded the essence of my assignment." The indescribably poignant expression on Thompson's face stands out from between the bowed heads of her sons, whose presence reveals the nature of her concerns.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Dorothea Lange
- Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond LimitsOur PickBy Linda Gordon
- Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea LangeBy Elizabeth Partridge
- Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's LifeBy Milton Meltzer, Dorthea Lange
- An American Exodus: A Record of Human ErosionBy Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor
- Dorothea LangeBy Mark Durden
- Dorothea Lange: American PhotographsOur PickBy Dorothea Lange
- Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the FieldBy Anne Whiston Spirn
- Dorothea Lange's IrelandBy Dorothea Lange, Daniel Dixon, Gerry Mullins
- A Friendship of DifferencesBy William Meyers / The Wall Street Journal / April 29, 2010
- Seeing Dignity in PovertyBy Julia Baird / Newsweek / November 5, 2009
- Internment Without Charges: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American InternmentBy Linda Gordon / Japan Focus / December 4, 2006
- Viewfinders KeepersBy Steve Chawkin / Los Angeles Times / May 31, 2004