A closer look at Dorothea Lange - American Documentary Photographer and Photojournalist

Hello, photography fans! Today I want to talk about an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, an amazing photographer from whom we have so much to learn. So let’s get started.

Dorothea was born in 1895 in New Jersey to second generation German immigrants. Her name actually was Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn. But After her father left the family without any explanations, Dorothea’s mother changed the family name back to her maiden name of Lange. As a child, she suffered polio, which left her with a partially paralyzed leg. She later admitted it affected her in everything she did.

“It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”

Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965)  © International Center of Photography

Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965)

© International Center of Photography

Even though she never used or even owned a camera she decided she would pursue a photography career. She attended photography classes at Columbia University and also learned photography in several photography studios in New York. She learned the developing of negatives, printing and retouching there.

In 1918 she decided to travel around the world with her friend. However, they were robbed during the trip and she ended up in San Francisco. Thanks to her experience, she found a job in a local lab retouching portraits. It was actually thanks to this job she was able to find an investor for her portrait studio, where she worked for next fifteen years. But the great depression in the 30s made her leave her job to document the effects of the crisis, such as homeless and unemployed people standing in the lines for bread. It was at that time when Lange made one of her most famous photograph: White Angel Breadline, named after a rich woman they called white angel that ran a bread line. But that wasn’t the first time she did something like this. During her high school years, she was actually attracted to the lower east side. She would sometimes skip classes and walk around the poor neighborhoods and slums in New York with her friend.

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
 Dorothea Lange

Now back to her great depression photography. Because of that she was hired by Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration) that was created to relocate families that were struggling during the time of great depression to the government’s land and to try to help people who were hit hardest by the crisis. She was hired by the government to document the workers and conditions they worked in.

Young cotton picker - Dorothea Lange  Dorothea Lange

Young cotton picker - Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

The project was supposed to bring the political support for government’s aid. She documented the poverty of seasonal migrant workers and with her second husband, Paul Tyler, who collected data and interviewed the workers for California Emergency Relief Administration. During that time, Lange took her most well-known photograph (the Migrant Mother, which has been already written about here.) Together with her husband they wrote a book about the migrants called an American exodus. Even though the images were taken for documentary purposes, I think her photographs often reflect her feelings. One of the techniques or styles we can see recurring in her photographs is the point of view she shot the photos from. Oftentimes she shot from lower point of view than those whom she photographed. This was perhaps because she didn’t want the viewers to be looking down to the people with whom she sympathized.

When we look at her photographs we can see they often also include the stories behind the pictures and captions. It was something her husband Tylor taught her to do. After photographing she would write down everything from the conversation, including quotes. They believed the story is as important as the photograph. I think it is actually very important in photography because without context we wouldn’t be able to understand the photos and what impact they had.

“Every image he sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait. The portrait is made more meaningful by intimacy – an intimacy shared not only by the photographer with his subject but by the audience.”Dorothea Lange

During the war, she documented the internment of Japanese Americans. Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order to send anyone who can be seen as potential threat to internment camps. Any person with at least one sixty-fourth Japanese ancestry was sent to the camps, even though no such relocation was required for German or Italian Americans. She photographed families who were forced to leave their homes and even visited the Manzanar War Relocation Center and camps in Sierra Nevada mountains. The images were actually not published during the war as they were very critical of the army. Her photographs of the internment camps are now part of National archives. You can also see them in the book “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.”

As I said it is important to know the context of the photos you are looking at. Many of the photos looks kind of ironic, like those kids doing the pledge of Allegiance or holding the American Flag of the very same country that later put them into the camps. Which you wouldn’t actually know without the historic background.

Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets, Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education." Dorothea Lange, 1942, San Francisco, California

Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School, Geary and Buchanan Streets, Children in families of Japanese ancestry were evacuated with their parents and will be housed for the duration in War Relocation Authority centers where facilities will be provided for them to continue their education."
Dorothea Lange, 1942, San Francisco, California

After the war she was invited to the fine art photograph department at California school of fine arts by Ansel Adams and in 1952 she co-founded the Aperture magazine.
Another interesting project was the Death of a Valley Project focusing on Monticello. It was a small town that was sacrificed to create a dam for California’s need of water. Lange, together with Pirkle Jones, created a photo essay documenting the town and the valley before the Monticello Dam was built. Even though Lange sold the photo essay to Life magazine, they eventually decided not to publish it. Lange later decided to devote an entire issue of Aperture to the work.

Lange died at the age of seventy in 1965 in San Francisco. Three months after her death, the Museum of Modern Arts in New York held a retrospective of her work, which she actually helped to curate before she died. In 2006, an elementary school was named for her in Nipomo, California and in 2008, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. I think she was an amazing photographer from whom we have so much to lear. Thanks to her, people could and still can see what was going on during certain important events in history.