There are some characters in the history of social photography that give us life and photographic lessons.
It is the case of the great Dorothea Lange (1885-1965).
We have talked about her in our last article about Walker Evans, her almost contemporary with whom she shares a photographic view but also the fact of being known world-wide for its work about american migrant farmers during 1930 and 1940. But her work can’t only be reduced to this mission.
Her photographic work is very closely bound to her life, so let’s dive into it !
Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn on May, 26 1895 at Hoboken in New Jersey. Her family is from the second generation of german migrants who came to America. She denies her last name at twelve when her father decides to leave the family home. She then takes her mother’s last name. The consequences of this abandon will also be reflected in the way she will chose her photographic subjects. We must remember that if Dorothea Lange highlights so well the world of the excluded is mainly because she feels close to them.
At 7 years old, Dorothea will contract polio and this will affect her all her life because she will always limp. Against all odds she refuses to become a teacher despite her brilliant studies, and decides to become a photographer instead. Just like that. Without having taken a single picture before. She enrols to study photography at the Columbia University of New York and at the same time works in small photographic studios where she learns all the facets of the profession and starts photographing in weddings and in the studio.
In 1918 she moves to San Francisco and opens one year later a very modest photographic studio where she specialises in portraits. She quickly finds success and starts having a local reputation. But soon, the urge of getting out of the studio becomes stronger and from 1920 she will start taking pictures outside of the studio.
In 1930 she starts questioning herself
« I realized that I was only photographing people who paid me for it. That bothered me. So I decided to close the studio and removed my darkroom. I asked myself : What am I trying to say ? I really wanted to face me ».
So she closed her studio in San Francisco and started to photograph what was happening around her, to see those who didn’t usually appear in photographs. And there were many persons left behind in the America of the 1930s. The country was facing an unprecedented financial crisis. And this financial crisis had a social impact as immediate as it was cruel.
Dorothea Lange, White angel bread line 1933
She wanted to use her camera as an « indifference killing machine » and went meeting persons who were suffering from the crisis : the San Francisco railway workers striking, thousands of unemployed looking in vain for a job, landless farmers forced to flee. California still seemed to be an el Dorado for many rural families from Alabama or Oklahoma (it is all the subject of Steinbeck novel « The Grapes of Wrath »). Dorothea Lange seeks to witness the living conditions of these migrants who arrived to California on false promises of better employment and living conditions and who found themselves crammed into makeshift camps and working for californian producers for a very small salary instead.
Dorothea Lange was hired by the WPA (Work Progress Administration) to witness the situation and help find solutions. She will mainly testify, during the fifteen years she worked for the State Services (that will change their name several time), about the profound dignity of men and women she portrayed full of humanity. Her best-known pictures are from this period. We immediately think of the iconic « Migrant mother » taken in 1936. All her reports will alert the public about this situation and will create empathy above all.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother 1936
She leaves what will become the FSA in 1943 after feeling she is not tuned ideologically with the program anymore.
The illness will force her to stop photographing for almost 6 years. She will start again in 1954-55 by making long stories on Mormons living in Ireland. It is also during this period that she will create, in collaboration with the journalist Ansel Adams, stories for the Life magazine. She will also begin a thorough study about the California judicial system.
Dorothea Lange, Coca Cola bottle children and mother, California 1939
In the early 1960s she will travel abroad, specially to East Asia, Venezuela, Ecuador and the Middle East.
She dies shortly after, in 1965 from cancer.
There is so much to say about her life that we will continue talking about her in our following publication.