Fine Art Photography Series
Dorothea Lange

American Documentary Photographer of Great Depression.

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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)


Dorothea Lange's Photography
Other Famous Photographers

For more about the early inventions and new processes upon which Lange's camera art was based, see: the History of Photography (c.1800-1900).

For a brief explanation of technical
and historical terms, please see:
Art Photography Glossary.

Dorothea Lange's Photography

One of the greatest photographers of the first half of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange achieved immortality with her photo Migrant Mother (1936), which has come to symbolize the struggle of the Great Depression in America. Probably the best-known example of fine art photography produced as part of the Farm Security Administration project, the photo was one of a series taken of Florence Owens Thompson and her seven children, a migrant family of agricultural workers whom Lange encountered by chance in Nipomo, California. Lange casts Thompson as the eternal Madonna, a symbol of long-suffering motherhood, in whom the hunger and strain of the Depression is clearly visible. Although she was an important example to later women artists, Lange was not involved in feminist art or feminism. During the 1940s, while working for the War Relocation Authority, Lange used her camera to publicize the plight of Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Like Walker Evans (1903-75), Ben Shahn (1898-1969) and other modern artists associated with the Social Realism movement, Lange made a hugely important contribution to American art of the period. A co-founder of the photographic magazine Aperture, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography.

For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?


Born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, to a family of second generation German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her early life was marked by two traumatic events: first, her contraction of polio, at the age of 7, which left her with a permanent and humiliating limp; second, the departure of her father when she was only 12. After this, she dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name Lange. In 1913, she left high school to become a photographer, taking jobs at various studios including that of Arnold Genthe. From 1917 she attended classes held by Clarence H. White (1871-1925) at Columbia University, New York. In 1918, she moved to San Francisco, and within a year she had opened her own portrait studio. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons.

After 1930, with the advent of the Great Depression, Lange focused on social issues, taking a series of photographs of unemployed and homeless people - now seen as ground-breaking documentary photography - which led to her being employed by the Federal Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Along the way, she divorced Dixon and married social scientist Paul Schuster Taylor. It was Taylor who educated Lange further in socio-political matters, and with whom she documented rural poverty during the period 1934-39: she took photos while he did the interviews and the economic research. Her photographs - which she circulated free of charge to newspapers across the country - quickly became famous and were instrumental in bringing the plight of displaced farm families and rural migrant workers to public attention. (Her photo of Florence Owens Thompson at the migrant camp in Nipomo, led to the rapid arrival of Federal aid to prevent starvation.)

Lange stayed with the Farm Security Administration until 1939. In this year she and Taylor published the important book An American Exodus. In 1941, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her lens-based art. In 1942, working for the War Relocation Authority, she covered the incarceration without charge, or right of appeal, of Japanese Americans in wartime internment camps. Her iconic photo of Japanese-American children pledging allegiance to the American flag just prior to being sent to internment camps, was a shocking image of the detention of innocent people without trial. (This and other related shots can be seen at the US National Archives, and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.) In 1943-1945 she worked for the Office of War Information, after which she joined Ansel Adams (1902-84) on the faculty of the Photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA).

After a break (1946-1953) for health reasons, Life magazine published two of her photo essays (1954-5), but turns down her 1957 photo-essay on the Californian judicial system. She also participated in the important photographic exhibition The Family of Man (1955) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as the later show The Bitter Years (1962) at the same gallery. From 1958 to 1963 she travelled extensively through Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.

In October 1965, Lange died of esophageal cancer, shortly before the opening of her major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, curated by John Szarkowski (1925-2007), who had just replaced the legendary Edward Steichen (1879-1973) as MOMA's Director of Photography. In 2008, Lange was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.

For other portrait photographers, see: Annie Leibovitz (b.1949).

Selected Exhibitions

Unless stated all shows are solo events.

1934 Oakland (California) (Willard Van Dyke Gallery)
1960 Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago)
1966 New York (Museum of Modern Art)
1972 New York (Whitney Museum of American Art) "Executive Order 9066"
1973 London (Victoria and Albert Museum)
1994 San Francisco (Museum of Modern Art)
1998 Paris (Hotel de Sully)
2000 Charleroi (Belgium) (Musee de la Photographie) group show
2002 New York (Edwynn Houk Gallery)
2002 Los Angeles (The J. Paul Getty Museum)
2004 Munich (Amerika Haus)
2005 San Francisco (Gendell Gallery - 2006)
2006 Tel-Hai (Israel) (The Open Museum of Photography at Tel-Hai)
2009 Madrid (PHotoEspana)

Photographs by Dorothea Lange are regularly shown in some of the best galleries of contemporary art across America.



Other Famous Photographers

In addition to the great 19th-Century Photographers, as well as those cited above, here is a selected list of other lens-based artists, with specialties.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) Precisionist style photos of industrial plant
Edward Weston (1886-1958) Still lifes
Man Ray (1890-1976) Dada, Fashion photography
Paul Strand (1890-1976) Straight photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) Street photography, surrealism
Robert Capa (1913-54) War photo-photojournalism
Irving Penn (1917-2009) Fashion photography
Richard Avedon (1923-2004) Fashion, portraits, documentary photos
Bernd and Hilla Becher (b.1931/1934) Industrial architecture
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) Figurative images, still lifes
Jeff Wall (b.1946) Staged photographs
Nan Goldin (b.1953) Feminist camera art
Cindy Sherman (b.1954) Surrealistic self-portraits
Andreas Gursky (b.1955) Architectural works, landscapes

• For more about "dustbowl" photography during the Great Depression, see: Homepage.
• For other forms of camera art, see: Video Art.

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