Dorothea Lange

Dates1895 - 1965
BornHoboken, New Jersey, United States
DiedSan Francisco, California, United States

Born Dorothea Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, to first-generation German Americans, Dorothea Lange was stricken at age seven with polio, which left her right leg and foot disfigured. Her father abandoned the family when she was twelve. After high school, she apprenticed with portrait photographer Arnold Genthe in Manhattan and studied with Clarence H. White at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.

Together with a friend, Lange embarked on a world tour in 1918, which ended in San Francisco when their money was stolen. She went to work at Marsh and Company, a store that sold photographic equipment. A chance meeting with a young businessman there led to the funding of her first portrait studio at 540 Sutter Street, which became one of the most fashionable studios, attracting an elite clientele for portraits and a bohemian crowd after hours. By this time, she had adopted her mother’s maiden name—Lange—as her last name.

The painter Maynard Dixon was one of the artists who frequented her studio. They married in March 1920 and welcomed their first son, Daniel, in May 1925, and their second, John, in June 1928. The Great Depression hit both Lange’s and Dixon’s businesses hard. For a period they boarded their boys in Marin County and moved into separate San Francisco studios.

It was from the window of her studio on Montgomery Street that Lange witnessed strikes and the struggles of the unemployed and homeless, which she began photographing on the streets with her Graflex camera in early 1933.

In summer 1934 Paul Schuster Taylor, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Berkeley, attended an exhibition of Lange’s images of May Day demonstrations. He reached out for permission to use one of her photographs and soon invited her to Oroville, a city north of Sacramento, to photograph a community of self-sufficient unemployed people. This meeting sparked a lifelong professional and personal relationship. Later that year, when Taylor was hired by the State Emergency Relief Administration to study workers coming to California in search of agricultural work, he again invited Lange to join him in a trip to Nipomo for the pea harvest. They developed a distinctive documentary style for their reports, blending imagery and text. Lange married Taylor in December 1935 after divorcing Dixon.

With an ongoing desire to effect social change with her photographs, Lange went to work for the Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA), under Roy Stryker. She often isolated her subjects from their specific surroundings to convey universalized stories of the challenges of indigent farm work and rural life. Her best known photograph is Migrant Mother, made in Nipomo in 1936.

Lange and Taylor collaborated on the 1939 book American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (Reynal and Hitchcock) that looked at the devastation suffered by farming families due to mechanization. They drew the text that accompanied Lange’s photographs from interviews with sharecroppers, field notes, folk songs, and newspaper accounts.

Through the 1940s Lange grappled with illness. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she photographed Japanese Americans whose lives were upended when they were forced into internment camps. In the 1950s she focused her camera on people working and living in the booming shipbuilding town of Richmond, California, as well as the Mormon residents of rural Utah and the destruction of a valley town to make way for man-made Lake Berryessa in California’s Napa County.

Between international travel for Taylor’s work in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Lange worked on a project called “New California,” in which she intended to capture the darker side of city life. She completed preparations for her retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the months leading up to her death from cancer on October 11, 1965.