“That frame of mind that you need to make fine pictures of a very wonderful subject, you cannot do it by not being lost yourself.”
No other photographer captured the struggles, emotions and consequences of the great depression era than Dorothea Lange. Her portraits of unemployed farmers, labourers and drifting workers proved to be some of the most historically resonant ever taken, and her work has greatly influenced modern photo journalism and the evolution of documentary photography.
Born in 1895 in New Jersey, Lange became interested in photography early, and her early work embodies the classic, popular portrait styles of the 1910’s and 20’s. At the onset of the depression in 1929, Lange was thrust into the career of a documentarian whilst photographing the wandering homeless of California and those below the breadline during the early 1930’s. After being approached by the FSA (Farm Security Administration), Lange began producing some of her most iconic work, documenting the struggles of migrant workers, share croppers and poverty in the rural United States. Throughout the 1930’s, Lange worked with several different relief organisations, travelling extensively across the western United States.
Lange’s stark images soon became icons of the depression era, and remain imprinted in the social construct of America. In 1936 she produced her most well-known image, the portrait of a weather-beaten woman, two young children clinging to her inside of a shabby lean-to. The image, simply titled ‘Migrant Mother’ has become a symbol of the depression, and when published in 1936, gave a face to the plight of her nation. Directly as a result of her work, aid was quickly rushed out into the deprived areas surrounding Los Angeles, but Lange was quick to dismiss her role in preventing starvation.
The success of her work earned her a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship award in 1941, however following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour later that year, she relinquished it, instead working to document the forced detainment and relocation of Japanese-Americans. Despite high anti Japanese sentiment in the United States at the time, Lange worked tirelessly to document the struggles of those that had ‘pledged allegiance to the flag’ but were still seen as the enemy in the eyes of the public. Her wartime images were censored and seized by the US military, and most were not seen until the end of the war.
Her success and fame came at a time where more women were working independently, establishing businesses and dominating the arts and literary careers. She herself opened a successful portrait studio by 1919, and continued to be heavily involved in several business ventures throughout her life. By the end of the war in 1945, Lange was approached to teach photography at The San Francisco At Institute, where she remained a faculty member well into the 1950’s.
Lange was part of a collective of photographers in California that became ever more influential as the decade drew on. In 1952 she co-founded the successful photography magazine Aperture, which is still in print today. Despite being in poor health toward the end of her life, Lange continued to collaborate with many other photographers of the age. In the mid 50’s, she documented several stories on the plight of poor America which were eventually published in Aperture throughout the decade.
Dorothea Lange died in 1965 aged 70, leaving a legacy behind that will likely never fade. Her work symbolised the era’s in which it was taken, and it continues to be seen in popular culture today, with many film portrays of the era taking inspiration from her work. A number of photographic and artistic awards have been created in her honour, and in 2003 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
"Lange took her focus to the hard working of society". Image by ReinierVanOorsouw