chapter  L
86 Pages


One of the twentieth century’s best-known photographers,DorotheaLangewas devoted to illustrating the human condition, creating one of the most widely-reproduced and studied images in photography,Migrant Mother of 1936. Although best-known for her work with the Depression-era Farm Security Administration, Lange’s passion for her photography and her subject matter lasted throughout her career. Born Dorothea Nutzhorn in 1895 in Hoboken,

New Jersey (she later took her mother’s maiden name), young Dorothea knew she wanted to be a photographer. At age seven she contracted polio, leaving her with a lifelong limp, which she felt marked her life-enabling her to understand what it was like to be an outsider. During her teenage years, Lange attended a public school in New York City and spent much of her time observing the everyday life around her. After high school, while studying to be a teacher, Lange announced that she wanted to become a photographer and embarked on a self-apprenticeship. She eventually worked as an assistant in several

portrait studios, notably that of Arnold Genthe, and befriended many photographers who helped her to learn the technical aspects of photography. In 1917, she studied with Clarence White, the well

known Photo-Secessionist, at Columbia University. A year later, after travels and with few resources, Lange found herself in San Francisco. Here she met artist Roi Partridge and his wife, photographer Imogen Cunningham, who would remain lifelong friends (and whose son Rondal Partridge would later become her apprentice). Shortly thereafter she opened a portrait studio (1919) and was soon established as a prominent portrait photographer, her aesthetic sense having been influenced both by Genthe andWhite. Langemarried painterMaynard Dixon in 1920 (whom she would divorce in 1935). Lange remained a portraitist for the first 15 years

of her career; her clients weremainly from the industrial and commercial worlds. Her pictures were often done with a soft focus and were frequently side profiles or taken at untraditional angles with natural lighting such as in Harry St John Dixon, 1922 or Dorothy Wetmore Gerrity, 1920. Although she was a sought after portraitist,

Lange changed her photographic subjects after the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Lange was compelled by the social crisis to document what was going on, and she took to the streets to photograph the people around her and their reactions to the economic decline. This change of direction was significant and she, from this point on, dedicated herself to photographing the trou-

bling conditions of the dispossessed. One of Lange’s first images of this unrest is a photograph of a breadline near her studio, which became one of her most famous images, White Angel Breadline, 1933. The unshaven man with his hands clenched in front of him, leaning against a wooden railing, his back to the crowd waiting for his ration of food, creates an overwhelming sense of isolation, a feeling that will be omnipresent in Lange’s images to come. Lange’s images begin to shift from her portraiture technique, in which the individual is taken out of their context, to a style that focuses on the relationship between the subject and their environment such as Dust Bowl Refugees Arrive in California, 1936. Lange continued to photograph the social tur-

moil of the Great Depression in the streets near her portrait studio while she received her first exhibition in 1934 at Willard Van Dyke’s Brockhurst Gallery in Oakland, California. Lange had made portraits of Van Dyke and his colleagues Ansel Adams and EdwardWeston all of whom were associated with the Group f/64, a group of West Coast photographers. Although Lange did not join the group, she was in contact with several members. At this first showing of her work, Lange’s pho-

tographs were noticed by Paul Schuster Taylor, an economics professor at Berkeley. He asked her to take photographs for his articles dealing with social research and reform.Lange andTaylor collaborated and together began their mission to publicize the plight of thousands of Americans for the California EmergencyReliefAdministration.Their initial work resulted in field reports made up of Taylor’s interviews with workers, Lange’s photo essays and Taylor’s analysis depicting the frightening reality of the migrant agricultural workers in California. Taylor’s sociological approach to their subjects would have an important influence on Lange’s developing style of photography as well as the thinking of Roy Stryker at the FSA. After photographing the conditions of migrant

workers in the ImperialValley, Langewrote to Stryker,

...what goes on in the Imperial is beyond belief. The Imperial Valley has a social structure all its own and partly because of its isolation in the state those in control get away with it. But this year’s freeze practically wiped out the crop and what it didn’t kill is delayed-in the meanwhile, because of the warm, no rain climate and possibilities for work the region is swamped with homeless moving families.