Dorothea Lange, Documentary Photography, and Twentieth-Century America charts the life of Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), whose life was radically altered by the Depression, and whose photography helped transform the nation. The book begins with her childhood in immigrant, metropolitan New York, shifting to her young adulthood as a New Woman who apprenticed herself to Manhattan’s top photographers, then established a career as portraitist to San Francisco’s elite. When the Great Depression shook America’s economy, Lange was profoundly affected. Leaving her studio, Lange confronted citizens’ anguish with her camera, documenting their economic and social plight. This move propelled her to international renown.

This biography synthesizes recent New Deal scholarship and photographic history and probes the unique regional histories of the Pacific West, the Plains, and the South. Lange’s life illuminates critical transformations in the U.S., specifically women’s evolving social roles and the state’s growing capacity to support vulnerable citizens. The author utilizes the concept of "care work," the devalued nurturing of others, often considered women’s work, to analyze Lange’s photography and reassert its power to provoke social change. Lange’s portrayal of the Depression’s ravages is enmeshed in a deeply political project still debated today, of the nature of governmental responsibility toward citizens’ basic needs.

Students and the general reader will find this a powerful and insightful introduction to Dorothea Lange, her work, and legacy. Dorothea Lange, Documentary Photography, and Twentieth-Century America makes a compelling case for the continuing political and social significance of Lange’s work, as she recorded persistent injustices such as poverty, labor exploitation, racism, and environmental degradation.

chapter |8 pages


chapter |12 pages

“I Knew It Was Dangerous to Have Something to Fall Back On”

Finding the New Woman, Finding Herself, 1912–1918

chapter |10 pages

Love and Work

Tangled Negotiations, 1918–1929

chapter |14 pages

“To Grab A Hunk of Lightning”

A Radical Change of Focus, 1929–1934

chapter |12 pages

“These Things Are a Pressin’ on us”

Dorothea Lange as Government Photographer, 1935–1936

chapter |22 pages

“The Sorriest Place in this Country”

Dorothea Lange and Southern Struggles, 1935–1939

chapter |28 pages

“In the Ditches at the End of Beauty”

California in the Depression, 1935–1940

chapter |19 pages

“Woman Can Change Better’n a Man”

Women in the Great Depression, 1929–1940

chapter |8 pages


“The Last Ditch:” Dorothea Lange and the Persistence of Vision, 1945–1965

chapter |5 pages

Primary Documents

Reading Photography in the Archives

chapter |2 pages

Study Questions

chapter |4 pages