Profile of Dorothea Lange

       Critics and curators, family and friends agree that it was the heart of Dorothea Lange that guided the focus of her camera lens and composition of images.  Whether viewing a single image or the thousands that comprise a lifetime’s work, one sees that Lange called upon the sheer power of her considerable will to force the medium of photography to obey and respond to the world that surrounded her. [1]  Whether this world was the San Joaquin Valley or the Mississippi Delta, the small communities of America’s farm belt or countryside of Ireland; the villages of Southeast Asia or the streets of San Francisco, she saw people that needed --- and deserved --- attention. Dorothea Lange responded by documenting their existence for others to see. This she did because she believed passionately that those who were pushed to the margins, whose existence had no color, needed to be heard, as well as seen. This commitment to the colorless and voiceless came from within. Dorothea Lange’s public life as a “Photographer of the People” was defined by her personal experiences as a child and adolescent. 

     When telling about her youth, Dorothea Lange commented wistfully, “Nobody knew who I was, what the color of my existence was, but there I was.”  Her comment referred directly to her years in school. However, it also reflects deeper feelings of being “cast aside,” an unintended consequence of her family’s circumstances. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895, Dorothea was the first child of Joan and Henry Nutzhorn, both second generation German-Americans; her brother, Martin, was born in 1901.  Though her first seven years were likely happy, the following 12 were not.  At age seven, Dorothea contracted polio, leaving her with a lifelong limp in her right leg; at age 12, her father, a successful lawyer, abandoned his family, never to be heard from again. 

     Dorothea, now a budding adolescent, found herself in a family in which her mother, Joan, was the sole provider as well as the only parent.  Joan met these challenges pragmatically: to cut expenses, she moved her family in with her mother (Dorothea’s grandmother), to earn money she found a job as a librarian in the lower eastside of Manhattan, and to spend more time with her twelve year old daughter, she enrolled Dorothea in the New York City public school system. Consequently, Dorothea began seventh grade a few blocks from her mother’s work --- a location populated primarily by recently arrived Jewish immigrants.  “I was the only Gentile among the Jews,” complained Lange in her autobiography.  Though spoken in hyperbole, this statement makes clear that Lange felt very much the outsider in her new school. Less academically aggressive, Lange became disinterested in learning; not living in the neighborhood, she never was part of any social group.  Things did not get much better in high school.  She attended Wadleigh High School, an all-girls’ school located in a posh neighborhood of uptown New York.  In her autobiography, Dorothea recalls being “dully unhappy” as an adolescent.  Such a feeling is punctuated by the fact that she could recall having only one friend in all those years.

     In retrospect, these sad, difficult years had positive consequences. Absent of friends and a teenager’s social life, Lange spent time seeing and appreciating the visual images she saw in the everyday life of diverse and busy neighborhoods of New York City. Moreover, left on her own, Dorothea developed an inner strength that gave confidence to pursue her own desires and to advocate for her own needs.  The combination of these two factors --- a visual understanding of society and a self-image that produced a strong will ---- gave Lange the qualities she needed to pursue the professional goal she identified at age 18. “I want to be a photographer,” she declared. With that statement of independence, Dorothea Lange embarked on a two-year, self-imposed apprenticeship in her chosen profession, working part time at Jasmin live portrait studios and befriending photographers who took time to teach her the techniques of composition and developing images.  Once she considered this apprenticeship complete, Dorothea Lange left home and settled in San Francisco. 

     Moving west proved to be transformational for Dorothea Lange, both professionally and personally.   As a nascent photographer, she decided to join the San Francisco Camera Club, precisely because it provided use of a community dark room to its members. Through the club, Lange met individuals who gave her enough money to open her own portrait studio in 1919.  Located at 540 Sutter Street, Lange’s studio became the place where she honed her skills as a photographer of the people.  And she succeeded: In the 1920s, Lange earned a reputation as one of better studio photographers in the Bay Area.  Her move to San Francisco marked change for Lange’s personal life as well.  Within weeks of moving to the west coast, she began to establish, for the first time in her life, a group of friends. Among the first were Roi Partridge and his wife, Imogen Cunningham. That friendship, one of Lange’s closest, lasted a lifetime. It was Partridge who also introduced Lange to her first husband, artist Maynard Dixon, a dashing figure 20 years her senior. Lange and Dixon were married about six months later.

     Dixon’s influence on Lange, as an individual and photographer, was profound. During their 15 year marriage, the couple had two children, Daniel (1925) and John (1928). Finding herself divided by dual loyalties of motherhood and of professional photographer challenged Lange for the next two decades. Equally important, Dixon’s aesthetic sensibilities directly influenced Lange’s emerging perspective as a documentary photographer. As a painter of landscapes and men and women of the west, Dixon nurtured Lange’s impulse to expose the public to those people whose existence, though often ignored, needed to be seen.[2]

     By the early 1930s Dorothea Lange’s life, once again, shifted directions. The collapse of the stock market made studio photography irrelevant and trite; the collapse of mutual trust made marriage to Dixon painful and untenable. Combined, these two factors caused her to venture into uncharted territory. Compelled by the visual drama of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange took to the streets to document the ways that individuals reacted to their economic losses and fears for the future. This impulse to capture the non-posed images of people quickly evolved into her early work as a documentary photographer in the tradition of Lewis Hines and Jacob Riis.

     Lange’s photographs were seen by Paul Schuster Taylor, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. Taylor was impressed.  He also realized that Lange’s work mirrored his own interests.  As a reformer of the progressive tradition, Paul Taylor focused his academic work and personal passion to using economic data to persuade government agencies to redefine public policies and allocate funds to improve the economic and social conditions experienced by the rural poor. Hired in 1934 by California’s State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA) to document the poor housing and working conditions of migrant agricultural workers, Taylor decided that his reports, though well-written and documented, would have more clout if they included photographs that gave visual evidence of these worker’s problems. Thus, Taylor hired Lange in 1934 to photograph this visual evidence. 

     As a working partnership, Taylor and Lange crafted field reports that equally balanced narrative and photographs.  Their interconnected evidence greatly strengthened the argument made in these reports: The reality that migrant agricultural workers were exploited by California’s large land owners. Migrants’ working conditions were only a slight step away from forced labor, and their make-shift housing lacked adequate shelter from changing weather conditions, clean water and sanitation, and any schools or recreational facilities.  The initial report produced by Taylor and Lange in 1935 prompted fundamental change in public policy: The federal government allocated $20,000 for building two migrant housing projects (Arvin and Marysville) in California. This funding marked the first time that the government funded development of public housing.

     Working with Taylor also marked dramatic changes for Dorothea Lange. During these months of professional collaboration, Lange and Taylor fell love, divorced their respective spouses, and married in December 1935.  From their first encounter in 1934 until Dorothea Lange’s death in 1965, the two lived were soul mates --- as individuals and as professionals. 

     In addition to having his love, Dorothea Lange now realized new professional opportunities from her connection with Taylor. Their first field report on migrants in California ended up on the desk of Roy Stryker. Recently appointed as director of the historical section of the Resettlement Administration,[3] Stryker was busy assembling a team of photographers to document the ways that the New Deal relief policies alleviated the suffering and economic vulnerability of the nation’s rural poor. After seeing the Taylor-Lange field report, Stryker hired Lange, requesting that she concentrate her work in California. Now, as a government photographer, she joined “the most distinguished photographic team every assembled in American history,” a group that included Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee.[4] 

     Thus, Dorothea Lange marshaled her considerable energy and personal commitment from late 1935 to mid 1943 to give voice and color to society’s “cast asides.” She documented the lives and needs of the people whose lives were impacted, both positively and negatively, by the New Deal and domestic wartime policies of the Roosevelt years.   These years nourished Dorothea Lange’s creative talents. These years yielded photographs that made Dorothea Lange the most widely published government photographer of the 1930s.  And these years made Dorothea Lange who she was: the visual messenger of America’s “everyman.”

     Yet, the task of being the nation’s visual messenger exacted from Lange a large personal price. Her assignments as a government photographer in the 1930s required that she be away from home for weeks at a time.  This meant that she had to leave her two sons with friends, and later she enrolled them in boarding school.  Choosing between her career and her children was difficult for Lange. Though John and Daniel, as adults, have come to terms with the difficulty of their mother’s decision, they also regret that she was absent from so much of their childhood and adolescent years.  The larger price, however, was the physical toll of Lange’s long hours and continuous stress.  Beginning in the early 1940s Dorothea Lange began a twenty-year progression of gastro intestinal problems that sapped her physical energy and diminished her ability to pursue photography. This progression started with chronic stomach pain, later diagnosed as intermittent epigastric distress, and concluded with cancer of the esophagus, non-operatable, painful and fatal.   Despite chronic poor health, Dorothea Lange used her reprieves from illness to create a handful of photo essays some of which appeared in Life magazine and some of which have been republished as separate works. Also, she traveled abroad with Taylor, which enabled her to photograph the men, women and children of Ireland, Egypt, Vietnam and Latin America.[5]  

     Equally gratifying to Lange in these years was ongoing recognition of her work as photographer of the Great Depression. Her photographs appeared in several exhibitions during these decades including three exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.  These exhibits, organized by Edward Steichen, were “Sixty Prints by Six Women Photographers (1949), “The Family of Man” (1952), and “The Bitter Years” (1962).  Yet it was the final exhibition --- a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art of New York --- that gave Dorothea Lange her greatest satisfaction In early 1964, John Szarkowski, director of the MOMA’s photography division, asked Lange if she would consider working on a definitive retrospective exhibition of her work.  Up to that point, the museum had presented only five major one-man exhibits:  Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Henri-Cartier-Bresson, and Edward Steichen. Slated as the museum’s sixth “one-man” exhibit, Lange had the opportunities to break through barriers of gender exclusion, and to shape her legacy as a photographer of the people. 

     Lange accepted, even though she knew by that time she was dying of cancer.   She used the next 14 months to put together this retrospective of her life’s work. “In this show,” Lange noted, “I would like to be speaking to others in the sound of my own voice, poor though it may be.  Not other people’s voices. ” [6]  A few weeks after selecting the final photographs for this exhibit,  Lange knew that she could finally let go of her life. On October 11, 1965, she died.  Paul Taylor, her partner in love and in profession, was by her side.  Thinking about the slated opening of the MOMA exhibit in January, she whispered her final words to Taylor: “Isn’t it a miracle that it comes at the right time.”[7] 

    Dorothea Lange, knowing that she had defined for others her visual interpretation of the human condition in her retrospective exhibit, met death the same way she had embraced life --- with courage, grace and, perhaps with an anticipation to experience the visual life in a new venue.


[1] Ralph Gibson, “Memory of a Photographer,” in Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer, Pierre Borhan, ed., (Boston: A Bulfinch Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, 2002), p. 221.
[2] This observation is one made by John Collier, who knew Lange and Dixon. See   Milton Meltzer, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000), p. 57.
[3] In spring 1935, the Resettlement Administration was within the Department of Agriculture; Rexford Guy Tugwell became its first administrator.  Tugwell wanted to use his agency to effect policy changes to address the problems of systemic agrarian poverty.  Tugwell hired Stryker as director of the RA’s Photograph Division.  Stryker’s division became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. Stryker was given the mandate by Tugwell to visual evidence that documented the problems of agrarian poverty. Tugwell intended to use this evidence for a massive educational campaign to change government policies and citizens’ attitudes.
[4]  Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 249.
[5] With the exception to her trip to Ireland, Lange traveled abroad with Paul Taylor.  Taylor’s reputation, expertise, and unrelenting commitment to argue for the economic needs of the rural poor caused him to receive consulting projects from federal government agencies. 
[6] Outtakes from the interviews of Dorothea Lange, 1963-1965 for two films produced for National Educational
Television by KQED, Inc., San Francisco. Tape 6, p. 120.
Elizabeth Partridge, “Introduction,” in Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life, Elizabeth Partridge, ed., (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), p. 7.


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Last updated: Thursday, 20 June 2024