Pioneer of Depression Era photography, Dorothea Lange gave a realistic portrait to the plight of thousands of displaced Americans during the 1930s.
“While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.”
– Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange Biography
She was born May 26, 1895 in New Jersey. Lange studied photography at Columbia University and began her career as a portrait photographer in New York. In her time, Lange married a painter and an economist exemplifying her fascination with both art and the realities of the world. She was quite a traveler and was in San Francisco when the Depression began. Its tight grip around the plain states and the government incentive program meant Lange would make her way east to the plains and shoot some of the best work in her career.
Farm Security Administration
In 1935 the government introduced a number of programs to provide employment including the nation’s artists. Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration to go out into the countryside and take pictures of the people and places struck by the Dustbowl, the high unemployment and rampant starvation. Her pictures are poignant black and white studies that, as Lange liked to say “let you see without the camera.”
A depiction of a homeless mother with her two small children wondering if the husband would ever return, her pictures of broken down cars discarded on the trail west, picket lines and bread lines, migrant workers, ruined homesteaders, immigrants, farmers, and every kind of human condition was the subject of her photography. Lange’s work was part of the growing documentary movement taking place in America. By the 1930s, the ideology of 1920s was over and the nation became a land of realists.
Lange spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and California chronically the conditions of the people, observing their existence and interviewing them. The interviews are recorded in her notes and give her photographs an extra level of understanding. She took hundreds of photographs and memorialized thousands of lives.
Lange’s Later Photography and Life
During World War II, Lange photographed the home front. Her subjects went from the breadline to the internment camp. The faces of migrant farmers were replaced with the faces of interred Japanese Americans. Later she traveled to Ireland and Vietnam. Her work appeared on the cover of “LIFE” magazine several times. In her retirement Lange taught photography at the California School of Fine Arts and co-founded the photography magazine “Aperture.” She passed away after a prolonged illness in October of 1965.
Dorothea Lange used the camera lens to document American life on a large scale during a time of great suffering. Her pictures grace the pages of history books and her portrayals of life during that era remain unsurpassed by government statistics or even newspaper headlines. Lange was a pioneer of documentary art and an example of photographer as advocate for the people.