Dorothea Lange, 1895-1965

  • Dorothea-Lange-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and ArtsWoman Tags: Photographer and SF Bay Area Women

  • HerStory

    A pioneer documentary photographer, who made a social change through her art.

    Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn was born in 1895 to a middle-class family in New Jersey. At the age of 12, her father abandoned the family, and she dropped her middle name, assuming her mother’s maiden name, Lange. After graduating from high school, she decided to become a photographer and went to study photography at Columbia University as well as working as an apprentice in several New York photography studios. In 1918 she left NYC to travel and eventually settled in San Francisco, establishing her own studio of portrait photographs of the social elite. In 1920 she got married and later had two sons.
    Her career took a turn when the Great Depression began, as she had the urge to turn the lens of her camera from the studio to document the changing world of the crisis. Her initial photos of the unemployed and homeless people led to her employment as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which aimed to document the crisis to increase public awareness and make a change. Lange traveled to rural areas and camps, documenting the life of the unemployed, migrants, poor, and desperate people. This documentation resulted in an aid sent to the camps. Her images become the icons of the era; on many of them, she wrote quotes and information about the person she photographed.
    She later continued as a full-time documentary photographer, traveling to far counties across the US, sometimes taking government projects documenting the lives of people in crisis and rural areas. One of these projects was in 1942 when she was documenting the transfer of Japanese-Americans from “assembly centers” to internment camps, Manzanar. These important images were published only after World War 2 was over.
    During the late 1950s and early 1960s, she traveled to photograph in Asia, South America, and Egypt. Lange died of cancer in 1965, three months before the opening of an exhibition about her life work in the MoMa, the first one-person retrospective by a female photographer held there.

    “You know there are moments such as these when time stands still…”

    “You know there are moments such as these when time stands still…”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • When she was 7 years old, she suffered from Polio disease, which left her with a permanent limp.
    • In March 1936, in Nipomo, CA, she took seven exposures of the 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson in different variations with her seven children. This photo is known as the “Migrant Mother”, and is one of the most famous photos of her as well as an icon of the Great Depression.
    • She published several books and co-founded the photographic magazine “Aperture”, today an international quarterly journal specializing in photography.
    • She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for achievement in photography in 1941 but gave it up to document the evacuation of Japanese-Americans across the west coast.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books she wrote
    * Books about her work


    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame
    * Inducted to the Hall of fame, The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Dorothea Lange - An American Odyssey

    Before she even owned a camera Dorothea Lange started her visual odyssey in New York's Lower East Side with a passion for mingling with the common people on the street. Following a move to the West she became one of the great portrait photographers of San Francisco's upper crust. But when the Great Depression hit, Lange reacted to the changes around her by moving back to the city streets and by photographing the destitute people who lived there. She had become bored with studio work and loved the bustle and exhilaration of street photography. She would not return to photographing the rich, but would cement her reputation photographing the impoverished Americans of the 1930s. Two of her photos, migrant mother and white angel breadline became icons of the Great Depression.

    This video is based on numerous primary and secondary sources including interviews with Lange, movies about her life, and several biographies. All content is factual. The flow of the narration includes direct quotes from Lange and a narrative based on the above sources.

    This video is for education and research only.

  • Photographer Dorothea Lange with her camera in California, 1936. Photo credit - Library of Congress.

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Wikipedia page. website.