About the Photographer
American, b.1895, Hoboken, NJ; d. 1965
Born Dorothea Margaretha Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895, Dorothea Lange contracted polio at the age of seven, leaving her with a permanent limp. Her father left the family when she was twelve, and subsequently her family moved to New York, where she later apprenticed in a portrait studio and studied with Clarence H. White at Columbia University (1917-1918). In 1918, she adopted her mother’s maiden name and left New York to travel the world, but she only made it as far as San Francisco. There, Lange operated a portrait studio (1919-1933) and married the painter Maynard Dixon in 1920, with whom she had two children. Lange made her first documentary-style photographs of Native Americans while traveling with Dixon to the Southwest in 1923.
After the stock market collapsed in 1929, Lange felt she had to respond to the deprivation she observed firsthand on the streets of San Francisco. Her first social documentary photographs depicted striking laborers and bread lines in 1933. The following year Willard Van Dyke organized an exhibition for Lange, through which the agricultural economist Paul Schuster Taylor became aware of her work. Taylor was a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley (1922-1964) and an advocate for migrant farmworkers. In 1935, Taylor asked Lange to accompany him as a research photographer on a study of migrant laborers in California for the State Emergency Relief Administration. Later that year, both Taylor and Lange obtained divorces and were married, beginning a lifelong professional and romantic relationship.
Lange is best known for her work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. The photography project in the Historical Section of the FSA was originally formed as part of the Resettlement Administration (RA). The RA was created in 1935 to rehabilitate exhausted land, resettle struggling farmers, and build relief camps for migratory workers and refugees from the Dust Bowl. The photographic project’s purpose was to document the plight of the rural poor and compile visual evidence supporting the RA’s educational campaign to achieve its objectives. The RA was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and folded into the FSA in 1937.
Lange approached documentary photography as a deeply personal practice. She believed in photography’s ability to reveal social conditions, educate the public, and prompt action. Lange thought of herself as an observer directly recording reality, although she also sought to portray moments with emotional resonance and to transform specific circumstances into transcendental and symbolic images.
Lange also had an extensive documentary career outside of her work for the RA and FSA. In 1941 she was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, with which she documented Mormon and Amana communities. Over a decade later she collaborated with Ansel Adams to document life in the Utah Mormon communities of Gunlock, Toquerville, and St. George for Life magazine. Three Mormon Towns (1953-1954) was published on September 6, 1954, accompanied by a text written by Lange’s son, Daniel Dixon. The MoCP holds many photographs from this series, in addition to Lange’s work from the Great Depression.
In 1952 Lange co-founded the quarterly periodical, Aperture, with Ansel Adams, Barbara Morgan, Minor White, Beaumont Newhall, and Nancy Newhall. The same year she met curator Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, who was planning his now-iconic Family of Man exhibition, with which Lange became heavily involved. Family of Man opened at the MoMA in 1955. Almost a decade later, Lange began to assemble a retrospective of her life’s work for the MoMA but was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in July 1964. She worked persistently on the retrospective until her death on October 11, 1965. The retrospective opened in January 1966.