Dorothea Lange was an American photographer and photojournalist born on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Despite her childhood hardships—she contracted polio at age seven and her father abandoned her family at age twelve—she took photography classes in New York City and moved to San Francisco in her early twenties, where she opened a portrait studio and married American painter Maynard Dixon. Lange often accompanied her husband on his painting journeys to the American Southwest, where Native Americans became the subjects of her earliest documentary photography.
Lange is best known for the documentary photography she did during the 1930s Depression for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration. These photos not only provided an intimate depiction of the human suffering caused by extreme economic hardships, but also advanced the development of photojournalism and documentary photography as an essential genre of photogrphay. Working for the Farm Security Administration from 1935 through the beginning of World War II, Lange documented Dustbowl families that migrated west. Lange found her passion in photographing everyday people and during and after World War II, Lange photographed Japanese Americans in internment camps, women working in wartime shipyards, the creation of the United Nations, and post-war industry in San Francisco.
“The Migrant Mother,” taken in March 1936 in Nipomo California, is one of Lange’s most famous photographs. The photograph depicts a thirty-two year old mother of seven children staring slightly away from the camera with two of her children huddling close to her, hiding their faces from the camera. The pea crop that year had failed, so the mother and her children, along with the 2,500 people in the camp were destitute. Although Lange did not ask the subject her story, the mother told Lange that she and her children “had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed….She had just sold the tires from her car to buy foods.” This image, along with other humanizing portraits of migrant workers, new settlers in the American West, and hungry children have contributed greatly to American sentiments about the Great Depression.
Dorothea Lange died on October 11, 1965 in Berkeley, California, of esophageal cancer. Her works continue to be recognized in art museums around the country, including the Oakland Museum of California, which holds the largest collection of Lange’s works. Lange’s compassion for humanity, her empathy for her subjects, and the importance she placed on ordinary people not only produced a personal collection of American photos, but also laid the foundations for decades of documentary photojournalism.