Dorothea Lange (born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn
Born: May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey
Died: October 11, 1965, in San Francisco
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Arts & Letters
If you have a picture in your mind of what the Great Depression looked like, you can probably thank Dorothea Lange. Armed only with her camera, Lange traveled California, the Southwest and the South throughout the 1930s, capturing powerful black-and-white images of a forlorn people battered by economic hardship.
That Lange made some of the Depression-era’s most widely viewed and influential photos of rural despair is all the more remarkable because of her middle-class urban roots. The daughter of second-generation German immigrants, Lange spent her formative years in bustling, turn-of-the-century Hoboken. After her father abandoned the family, Lange’s mother moved Dorothea and her brother to Manhattan’s cramped Lower East Side, where Lange spent her teenage years.
The empathy Lange demonstrated in her photography can be linked in part to the polio she contracted at age 7. The virus left her with a weakened right leg and a lifelong limp. This did not dampen her ambitions. Once she decided to focus on photography, she studied the craft at Columbia University and apprenticed at several New York photographic studios before traveling west at age 23.
Lange settled in San Francisco, opened a portrait studio and developed a clientele among the city’s elite, but as Depression-era poverty washed over the nation, she ventured out with her camera and began photographing the homeless and the hungry on the streets and on the breadlines. Her work led to a commission in 1935 with a federal agency that would become the Farm Security Administration. Her task was to help bring attention the nation’s rural poor.
“You were turned loose in a region,” Lange later explained in an interview. “And the assignment was to see what is really there. What does it look like? What does it feel Like? What actually is the human condition?” Lange’s stark images of impoverished farmers and displaced workers were distributed to newspapers around the country to raise awareness of their plight. Her most famous image, what became known as “Migrant Mother,” depicts a woman, seemingly drained of hope, her children huddled around her.
During World War II, Lange continued to capture the human condition with her photos of Japanese Americans in West Coast internment camps. (The federal government initially suppressed the photos; they were not seen until after the war.) In the decades after the war, Lange taught photography, founded the highly regarded photography magazine Aperture, and continued using her camera to document poverty, injustice and environmental displacement.