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  • Ana Savković

Dorothea Lange: Touching the Unattainable/On the Thin Edge

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Image: Unsplash, downloaded (22.4.2021.)

The New York Public Library, 1935 - Sick migrant child, Washington, Yakima Valley, Toppenish, by Dorothea Lange

"To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it."

Dorothea Lange was best known for her work during the Great Depression era. Her remarkable photographs showed devastating societal consequences of the Depression, and significantly influenced the development of documentary photography. Much has been said about Lange's work and her impact on photography, but what was Lange like privately, and how did her dedication to work affect her personal life? Dorothea Lange: A Visual life sheds light on some of Lange's distinct character traits like ambitiousness, decisiveness, and diligence that served her well in her work but were at times overbearing for those closest to her. In this week's ZiNger we will examine the life and work of this esteemed photographer.

Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 - October 11, 1965) was an American documentary photographer whose photographs of displaced farmers during the Great Depression greatly influenced later documentary and journalistic photography. Her most famous photograph, “Migrant Mother,” became an iconic photograph of depression and one of the most familiar images of the 20th century.

"I had in my early years, before I was fully grown, a great many things to meet, some very difficult, a variety of experiences that a child shouldn't really meet alone. I was aware that I had to meet them alone, and I did."

She was born in Hoboken, New Jersey to a family of German immigrants. Lange’s father, Heinrich Nutzhorn, left her mother Johanna Lange, Dorothea, and her brother Martin when the photographer was twelve years old which was a distinctly traumatic experience for her. She later rejected her father's last name, and took her mother's maiden name. At the age of seven, Lange contracted polio which caused her to have a weakened right leg. She limped for the rest of her life, and that also had a strong impact on her, it shaped and formed her character. Her physical disability may have helped her later in life with connecting and getting closer to the subjects of her photographs.

"I was physically disabled, and no one who hasn't lived the life of a semi-cripple knows how much that means. I think it perhaps was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me." She graduated from Wadleigh High School for Girls, in New York City and, even though she was completely inexperienced in photography, decided to become a photographer. She began studying photography at Columbia University under the tutelage of American photographer Clarence H. White. She later acquired informal apprenticeships in several New York photography studios, including that of the famous German-American photographer Arnold Genthe.

"I came to California in 1918. I was a photographer in San Francisco. I struggled hard with it, and some of my longest, hardest working years were those years, up to the limit of my strength."

In 1918, she left New York with the intention of traveling the world, but after being robbed, settled in San Francisco where she worked in a photographic store, met other photographers and investor for her own portrait studio. Two years later she married American artist Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons, Daniel and John, and her studio work was a source of income for the family for the following fifteen years. Her early studio work mainly involved taking portrait photographs of the social elite in San Francisco, but at the beginning of the Great Depression Lange turned her focus to the streets. She wanted to shine a light on the devastating impact that the economic crisis had on society. "I was compelled to photograph as a direct response to what was around me. I went out just absolutely in the blind staggers." The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash, was a stock market crash that is associated with the October 25, 1929, known as Black Friday, the day after the largest sell-off of shares in U.S. history (Black Thursday). The crash which followed the London Stock Exchange crash in September, marked the beginning of the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a worldwide economic depression that lasted from 1929 to 1939. It started in the United States after the stock market crash that began around September 4, 1929, and became worldwide news with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929. (known as Black Tuesday). Millions of people in the U.S. were out of work. Many were homeless, without food, it was the deepest, longest and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the midwest and southwest the crisis has been exacerbated by droughts and dust storms. Hoping to find work, about 300,000 men, women and children migrated west to California during the decade of the 1930s. These migrant families called “Okies” (meaning from Oklahoma, no matter where they come from) traveled in old cars or trucks, wandering from place to place. Lange began photographing these people and documenting their lives in the streets and roads of California. With her photographs she managed to show the extent of the depression, found her purpose, and direction as a photographer. She became known as one of the first of a new kind of photographer, a “documentary” photographer. "They were made when I was just gathering my forces and that took a little bit because I wasn't accustomed to jostling about in groups of tormented, depressed and angry men, with a camera. Now I could do it much more easily because I've learned a lot about doing it, and I've confidence in people that they will trust me." Lange’s photograph “White Angel Breadline” (1933), which shows a lonely man facing away from the crowd of people in front of a soup kitchen run by a widow known as White Angel, led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange developed the skill of talking to subjects that allowed her to make insightful titles and notes accompanying the photograph, making her work unique, empathetic and profound. "We have let them speak to you face to face." In 1935, Lange and Dixon divorced, and Lange then married Paul Schuster Taylor, an economist and professor of economics at the University of Berkley. For the next five years, Lange and Taylor traveled the California coast and midwest, documenting the poverty, exploitation and hard lives of migrant workers and sharecroppers. The couple successfully collaborated together, with Taylor interviewing subjects and collecting economic data, while Lange photographed and collected supporting data. "I was following instinct, not reason; I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon. 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 no questions... 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. " One of Lange's most famous photographs is "Migrant Mother", featuring Florence Owens Thompson and her children. Lange sent her photos to the San Francisco News and they published the images and reported that 2,500 to 3,000 workers had been starved in Nipomo Mesa, California. The government then sent aid to the camp to prevent further starvation. "Migrant Mother" became one of the most iconic photos in American history but neither Lange or Thompson had any financial gain from it. The image was public domain because Lange was funded by the federal government when she took it, and she was not entitled to royalties. However, the photograph did help Lange gain popularity and respect from her colleagues. In 1941, she was awarded a Guggenheim Scholarship for achievement in photography but, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave it up to go on an assignment for the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to document the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast of the United States. Authorities seized most of her photographs and they were not seen publicly during the war. Today her photographs of the evacuations and internments 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. American landscape photographer and environmentalist, Ansel Adams invited Lange in 1945 to teach at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, now known as the San Francisco Art Institute. Photographers Imogen Cunningham and Minor White also joined the faculty. In 1952, Lange co-founded the photography magazine Aperture. "In this show, 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. I don't care how wide I lay myself open this time." In the last decade of her life, Lange's health declined. She died of esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965 in San Francisco. She was survived by her husband, two children, three stepchildren and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Three months after her death, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a retrospective of her work which Lange helped curate. It was MoMA's first retrospective solo exhibition of the works of a female photographer. After her death she received many honors and recognitions. In 2003, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Three years later, an elementary school was named in her honor in Nipomo, California, near the site where she had photographed "Migrant Mother". In 2008, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. In October 2018, Lange’s hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey honored her with a mural depicting Lange and two other eminent women, Maria Pepe and Dorothy McNeil.

"It wasn't easy, but you didn't ever quit in the middle of anything because it was uncomfortable." Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life is a compelling read. Edited by Elizabeth Partridge, the book consists of photographs, excerpts from Lange's journal entries, interview, and essays who help chronicle the life of America's most celebrated photographer, and portray the woman behind the camera. Partridge was part of Lange's extended family. Her father was Ron Partridge, who was sent to be an apprentice to Lange by his mother, American photographer Imogen Cunningham known for her botanical photography, nudes, and industrial landscapes, when he was seventeen.

"[I] continued to reserve a small portion of my life... and that was my photographic area. Still, the most of life and the biggest part, the largest part of my energy, and my deepest allegiances, were to Maynard's work and my children." Every individual represented in the book offers valuable insight into the life of the famous photographer. Elizabeth Partridge writes about how it was like to be a part of Lange's extended family circle and "complicated family". She describes Lange as having "fiercely self-critical nature", writes about her "unyielding nature" and "iron will" that directed the lives of her extended family and family members, and explains how she "stood central" in all their lives. Lange's family was greatly affected by her desire to dedicate herself to the art of photography, to her work. Partridge writes how Lange's son, John Dixon, remembered how she always said "Not good enough, Dorothea.", while looking at her photos. Linda A. Morris details Lange's life, work, ambition, and describes her as "a powerful and focused photographer " and "a pioneer who seized the opportunities that were presented to her''. Clark Kerr writes about Dorothea and Paul, describing their complementary private and fruitful work relationship. He states that "their work together is a part of American history, as they recorded American history in the making." Roger Daniels writes about her work with the War Relocation Authority, Paul's and hers opposing the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans, and about the empathy she felt towards them. Sally Stein writes about Lange's physical disability and how it affected her life and work. Famous photographer Ansel Adams offers his views in an interview. Ansel says Lange wasted no time, work was her preoccupation: "And she never had small talk... Dorothea had no patience at all with that kind of waste of time..." The landscape photographer came to see her before she died and took photos: "Not perfectly sharp but... the older she got the more beautiful she got... I mean, she became sort of chiseled, sort of a... tragic quality, stronger and more luminous." Dan Dixon writes about the difficult relationship he had with his mother and about her talent: "Genius is mysterious and difficult to describe. But whatever it is, my mother possessed it. She was richly gifted, and in many different ways. You saw it in the rhythm of her movements, felt it in the power of her presence, heard it in the poetry of her speech." "I have not yet been able to break the habit of thinking that everything is ahead. That has been my lifelong attitude." Dorothea Lange was a woman of many contradictions, omnipresent and eternally distant when it came to those closest to her, she fought for private and business freedom yet constrained her family. Lange was always looking ahead, searching for ways to shed light on the struggles that she witnessed. She was very sensitive to the sufferings of others, and her own physical disability certainly made her aware of the constrictions life imposes on individuals. She reserved a substantial part of herself for her work and the ones who were close to her were left with somewhat bittersweet memories of their time with the famous photographer that had captured the American history during a crucial period. While studying Lange's work one notices real beauty in her photographs. They have a special feel, the unexplainable yet obvious truths about the nature of life are visible on the faces of those Lange chose to portray, their pain and harsh experiences visible in their eyes, etched in their wrinkles, with the background conveying the general notion of desolateness, the difference is very noticeable. Lange sacrificed much to accomplish what she set out to do, she was "on the thin edge all the time" but her efforts were not in vain, because in the end she succeeded, she managed to capture the unattainable.

"I was always pushing in many directions at once, always trying to overreach myself. It keeps me constantly restless, and probing and fractured. However, that way of working engenders is a very good kind of fatigue, because it keeps you alive. You may be exhausted by the complexities of your existence, but there is no retreat in it. You are right out on the thin edge all the time, where you are unprotected and defenseless. " Sources:

1. Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life (Patridge, E. (1994) Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life, Washington: Smithsonian Institution)

2. Wikipedia:


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