Dorothea Lange - The People's Photographer

October 09, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Dorothea Lange was one one of the great documentary photographers of all time; She said of herself that she lived a very, “visual life.”
 
She was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey.   Two pivotal events in her life were to provide her with a deep understanding of suffering which she was later able to turn to her advantage.   At age seven she contracted polio, leaving her with a limp and at age twelve her father left home never to return.  She took on her mother’s maiden name and refused to speak of him again.  Her decision to take up photography first surfaced during the long walks after school to meet her mother from her job as a librarian in Manhatten.  
 
She studied photography at Columbia University, New York, and was taught by Clarence H White, one of the pioneers of Fine Art Photography.   She became informally apprenticed to, famous portrait photographer, Arnold Genthe under whom she learnt how to understand and connect with her subject, believing this to be the artistic part of photography.     In 1918 she moved to San Francisco to set up a successful portrait studio and soon after married a well-known painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons.  
 
In 1930, as the Great Depression began, Dorothea took her camera to the street and turned her attention to the unemployed and homeless.  This got her noticed by The Farm Security Administration (a government relief agency) who offered her a job.   In 1935 she divorced Dixon and married the Economist Paul Schuster Taylor who educated her in social and political matters.  Together, they made a great team, documenting the plight of the desperate; Taylor gathered the data and Dorothea took the photos.  The result was a report called, “An American Exodus” which they subtitled, “A Record of Human Erosion”, and in it they wrote, “We have let them speak to you face to face”.
 
Her most iconic image is that of the “Migrant Mother”, a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, a desperate mother of seven, living in a pea picker’s camp in Nipomo, California.   Within days of the image being published the camp received 20,000 pounds worth of food from the federal government.    The photograph came to symbolize that entire era of American history.
 
 
 
In 1941 she gave up her Guggenheim Fellowship award for excellence in photography to highlight the treatment of American Japanese families being evacuated from their homes to prison camps after the attack on Pearl Harbour, a procedure she deeply opposed. 
 

 
 
 
 
In 1944 she worked with, famous landscape photographer,  Ansel Adams on a feature for Fortune Magazine documenting the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond.
 
In 1952 she co founded the photographic magazine, Aperture. 
 
Dorothea believed her eye to be the camera lens.  In the last few years of her life she suffered ill health and as a friend sat beside her bed one day, she said, “I’ve just photographed you”.   She died of Esophageal Cancer in 1965 aged 70.   
 

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