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Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Activist

Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn (1895-1965) was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. She assumed her mother’s maiden name Lange after her father abandoned the family when she was 12 years old, one of two traumatic incidents early in her life. The other was her contraction of polio at age seven, which left her with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp: “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” Lange once said of her altered gait. “I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”

Lange was educated in photography at Columbia University. Her early influences included her teacher Clarence H. White, as well as the photographer Arnold Genthe.  In 1918, she left New York to travel the world, but was forced to end the trip in San Francisco due to a robbery and settled there, working as a photo finisher at a photographic supply shop. While working at this shop, Lange became acquainted with other photographers and met an investor that aided in the establishment of a successful portrait studio. This business supported Lange and her family for the next 15 years. Lange’s early studio work mostly involved shooting portrait photographs of the social elite in San Francisco. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street. Her studies of unemployed and homeless people, starting with White Angel Breadline (1933) which depicted a lone man facing away from the crowd in front of a soup kitchen run by a widow known as the White Angel, captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

In December 1935, she and her husband economist Paul Schuster Taylor, starting documenting rural poverty, with Taylor interviewing and gathering economic data, Lange taking photos. Working for the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, they brought the plight of sharecroppers and migrant workers to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era.

One of Lange’s most famous works is Migrant Mother, a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson. In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they 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 food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

After Lange returned home, she told the editor of a San Francisco newspaper about conditions at the camp and provided him with two of her photos. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included the photos. As a result, the government rushed aid to the camp to prevent starvation.

In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for achievement in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority (WRA). She covered the internment of Japanese Americans, traveling throughout urban and rural California to photograph families preparing to leave, visiting several temporary assembly centers as they opened, and eventually highlighting Manzanar, the first of the permanent internment camps. Much of her work focused on the waiting and uncertainty involved in the removal: piles of luggage waiting to be sorted, families wearing identification tags and waiting for transport. Her photograph of Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the flag shortly before they were sent to camp displays a bitter irony that highlights the injustice.

Her images were so obviously critical that the Army impounded most of them, and they were not seen publicly during the war. Today her photographs of the internment are available in the National Archives on the website of the Still Photographs Division, and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1945, Lange was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position as faculty at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), now known as San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Besides Adams, her colleagues included Imogen Cunningham and Minor White

For the rest of her life, Lange continued her work as an activist/photographer. In 1952, she co-founded the photographic magazine Aperture. Lange and Pirkle Jones were commissioned in the mid-1950s to shoot a photographic documentary for Life magazine of the death of Monticello, California and of the displacement of its residents by the damming of Putah Creek to form Lake Berryessa. The magazine did not run the piece, so Lange devoted one whole issue of Aperture to the work. The photo collection was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960. Another series for Life magazine which she began in 1954 documented the inadequate way that indigent people were defended in the court system.

Lange died of esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965, in San Francisco, California, at age 70. Three months later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective show of her work, which Lange herself had helped to curate.

Today Dorothea Lange is recognized as one of the most important photographers who has ever lived. She not only created a number of iconic images, but she also was a pioneer in the use of photography as a tool in addressing social injustice.

To view MOMA’s extensive collection of Dorothea Lange’s photography, click here. Below are four of her most famous images.

This post was curated by Michael Simms. Biography and compilation 2020 Michael Simms.

White Angel Breadline (1932) Library of Congress.
Migrant Mother. Portrait of Florence Thompson (1936). The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”
Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans (Library of Congress)
Full caption written perhaps by Lange: “Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center.” (National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain)

One comment on “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Activist

  1. johnlawsonpoet
    January 11, 2020

    Hard to believe that anyone could pass up a last name like Nutzhorn. But talent will prevail, regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

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