Dorothea Lange’s images of the Depression have made her one of the most fêted documentary photographers of the twentieth century. Migrant Mother, a picture of Florence Owens Thompson, taken in Nipomo, California, in 1936, is one of the icons of the period. Lange’s career also encompassed celebrated work for Fortune and Life magazines, and she was a co-founder of Aperture magazine in 1952.
Born Dorothea Nutzhorn, in Hoboken, New Jersey, she was struck down by polio at the age of seven, leaving her with a permanent limp. Five years later her father abandoned her and her mother, prompting Dorothea to take her mother’s maiden name, Lange. The courage and determination that these early experiences fostered in her undoubtedly shaped her vision, and in 1917 she began training as a photographer in New York under the leading Photo-Secessionist Clarence White. Four years later she moved to San Francisco and opened a successful portrait studio.
She would live in Berkeley for the rest of her life, but the hardship caused by the Depression prompted her to change direction as a photographer. In 1935, accompanied by her second husband, economist Paul Schuster Taylor, she began documenting the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farmers and migrant workers. Shortly afterwards she started work for the Farm Security Administration, and took many of the photographs which remain the most memorable images of the New Deal era. During WWII she photographed Japanese-Americans held in internment camps. After the war she suffered many years of illness, but she continued to work, undertaking assignments for Fortune and Life, and traveling widely through Asia, Latin America, and Egypt. She helped in assembling the renowned ‘Family of Man’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, and she died, ten years later, whilst preparing for a retrospective of her life’s work at the same venue.
Dorothea Lange’s publications include An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, co-authored with Paul Schuster Taylor in 1939 (and since reissued in several editions). Since her death there have been several major retrospectives of her work, most recently “About Life: The Photography of Dorothea Lange,” at The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, in 2002. She is the subject of a full-length biography by Milton Meltzer (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1978), as well as a major study, Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition, by Karin Becker Orin (Louisiana State University, 1980). In 2008 Lange was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, at the California Museum of History, Women, and the Arts.