Producing beautiful, startling and often jarring images of unemployed men and migrant workers and bringing the conditions of the rural poor to the public's attention, the American documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, is remembered for revealing the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farmers and migrant workers during the Great Depression.
One of the preeminent and pioneering photographer of the 20th century, Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the age of seven, Dorothea contracted polio, which left her with a weakened right leg and foot. After her father abandoned the family, just before she reached her teens, Dorothea dropped his surname and took her mother's maiden name, Lange, as her own.
Lange studied photography at Columbia University in New York City under Clarence H. White, a member of the Photo-Secession group. In 1918, she decided to travel around the world, earning money as she went by selling her photographs. By the time she reached San Francisco her money ran out, so she settled there and obtained a job in a photography studio.
During the Great Depression, Lange began to photograph the unemployed men who wandered the streets of San Francisco. Pictures such as “White Angel Breadline” (1932), showing the desperate condition of these men, were publicly exhibited and received immediate recognition both from the public and from other photographers, especially members of Group f.64.
In 1935, Lange earned a commission from the federal Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Since this work was carried out for a government body, it has been an unusual test case of American art being commissioned explicitly to drive government policy. Her photographs of migrant workers, with whom she lived for some time, were often presented with captions featuring the words of the workers themselves.
Lange’s most famous portrait, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), was considered by the FSA director Roy Styker, to be the iconic representation of the agency's agenda. Now hangs in the Library of Congress, the work captures the dirt and despair of that era through the eyes of a 32-year-old woman.
In 1939, Lange published a collection of her photographs in the book “An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion”. In 1940, she became the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Following America's entrance into World War II, Lange was hired by the Office of War Information (OWI) to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans, therefore, in 1942, She recorded the mass evacuation of Japanese Americans to the detention camps after Japan’s attack Pearl Harbor.
Battling with increasing health problems during the last two decades of her life, Lange stayed active. She cofounded Aperture, a small publishing house that produce a periodical and high-end photography books. She took on assignments in Pakistan, Korea and Vietnam, among other places, documenting what she saw along the way.
Preparing a retrospective exhibit for the New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Lange passed away from esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965, at age 70, shortly before the MoMA retrospective opened to widespread acclaim.