Legacy: Dorothea Lange: Photographer


Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. Lange is best known for her work documenting poor conditions of the migrant workers who traveled in large numbers to California during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. Her photographs brought much-needed attention to their plight.

Lange used photography to document the difficult period of the Depression and to motivate agencies and individuals to take action to improve the situation. With her photographs Lange was able to capture the emotional and physical toll that the Depression and other events took on human beings across the country.

DorotheaLangeCloseupDorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895 and studied photography in New York City before the First World War. In 1919, she moved to San Francisco, where she earned her living as a portrait photographer for more than a decade. During the Depression’s early years Lange’s interest in social issues grew and she began to photograph the city’s dispossessed. A 1934 exhibition of these photographs introduced her to Paul Taylor, an associate professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and in February 1935 the couple together documented migrant farm workers in Nipomo and the Imperial Valley for the California State Emergency Relief Administration.

Copies of the reports Lange and Taylor produced reached Roy Stryker, who offered Lange a job with the Resettlement Administration in August 1935. Unlike the agency’s other photographers, Lange did not move to Washington but used her Berkeley home as a base of operations. She and Taylor were married that winter.

Lange returned to the Imperial Valley in early 1937 for the Resettlement Administration. The valley was in a state of crisis. The most poignant and moving photographs from Lange’s trip convey a mood rather than describing circumstances or activities like the mother and child in the tent opening.


Eighteen year-old mother from Oklahoma, now a California migrant, 1937. Dorthea Lange

Lange’s friend Ron Partridge described how Lange worked saying, “She would walk through the field and talk to people, asking simple questions–what are you picking? . . . How long have you been here? When do you eat lunch? . . . I’d like to photograph you, she’d say, and by now it would be “Sure, why not,” and they would pose a little, but she would sort of ignore it, walk around until they forgot us and were back at work.”

Lange’s ninety-seven Imperial Valley photographs from 1937 are integrated with more than one hundred other images of California migrants she made that year. Some of her Imperial Valley photographs document conditions: the makeshift camps on the banks of irrigation ditches, the use of irrigation water for cooking and washing, the crowds at the relief offices, and, when work was available, the stoop labor. Her photography was not limited to Okies and Arkies for she also photographed the camps occupied by Mexican laborers, a Japanese-owned farm, and Filipinos picking lettuce.

DorotheaLangeShackMigratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California, 1937. Dorthea Lange

Lange’s photographs were intended to help bolster support for the establishment of migrant camps in the area by the Resettlement Administration. Between 1937 and 1940 her pictures were used in a report to the U.S. Senate, in An American Exodus, for a Works Progress Administration exhibit in San Francisco, and by a number of newspapers and periodicals. One of Lange’s photographs of migrants ultimately appeared in Life. At the end of a six-page spread on the Dust Bowl in the issue dated 21 June 1937, the magazine displayed a striking full-page close-up of the man with the defiant glance. Lange was not credited, although the Resettlement Administration was. Life however did not present the unidentified man as a victim of human erosion but called him a “new pioneer” seeking a new life in California. According to Life, his “courageous philosophy” led him to say, “I heerd about this here irrigation. . . . I figured that in a place where some people can make a good livin’ I can make me a livin’.”

DorotheaLangeDefiantGlanceEx-tenant farmer on relief grant in the Imperial Valley, California, 1937. A cropped version of this photo appeared in Life Magazine, June 21, 1937.

In a 1964 interview conducted by Richard Doud, Lange discounted the contemporary impact of the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration photographs, forgetting for a moment the fact that her own pictures had influenced public opinion and government policy. Life’s use of her Imperial Valley photograph may have contributed to her bleak assessment that “during the years [the section] was being formed, it was not a [public relations] success.”

The picture magazines were reluctant to use the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration photographs, Lange speculated, because of the media’s emphasis on current events. The photographs “got mixed up with news,” Lange told Doud, adding, “This was a state and a condition we were describing, and had no appeal.” But she concluded that the judgment of history has established the importance of the photographs. “But time of course is a very great editor, and a great publicist,” Lange said. “Time has given those things the value.”

Source: Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/docchap3.html

Read more about Dorthea Lange and her photography.