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Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965) was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography.
Born of second generation German immigrants on May 26, 1895, at 1041 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange was named Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn at birth. She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name after her father abandoned the family when she was 12 years old, one of two traumatic incidents early in her life. The other was her contraction of polio at age seven which left her with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp. "It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," Lange once said of her altered gait. "I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."
In December 1935, she divorced Dixon and married economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Together they documented rural poverty and the exploitation of sharecroppersand migrant laborers for the next five years – Taylor interviewing and gathering economic data, Lange taking photos.With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street. Her studies of unemployed and homeless people, starting with White Angel Breadline (1933) which depicted a lone man turned away from the crowd in front of a soup kitchen run by a widow known as the White Angel, captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called theFarm Security Administration (FSA).
Lange took the photo Migrant Mother in California in 1936. Lange captured the mother and her children's feeling of lost hope for the future.When this photo published, it made the public realize unemployment had great impact on family. This photo was published on a media in Los Angeles. Because of this photo, Lange got the Guggenheim prize in 1941.
From 1935 to 1939, Dorothea Lange's work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten – particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers – to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era.
One of Lange's most recognized works is titled "Migrant Mother." The woman in the photo is Florence Owens Thompson. The original photo featured Florence's thumb and index finger on the tent pole, but the image was later retouched to hide Florence's thumb. Her index finger was left untouched (lower right in photo).
In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:
After Lange returned home, she told the editor of a San Francisco newspaper about conditions at the camp and provided him with two of her photos. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included the photos. As a result, the government rushed aid to the camp to prevent starvation.
According to Thompson's son, Lange got some details of this story wrong, but the impact of the picture was based on the image showing the strength and need of migrant workers.
Japanese American internment
In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for achievement in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority (WRA). She covered the internment of Japanese Americans and their subsequent incarceration, traveling throughout urban and rural California to photograph families preparing to leave, visiting several temporary assembly centers as they opened, and eventually highlighting Manzanar, the first of the permanent internment camps. Much of her work focused on the waiting and uncertainty involved the removal: piles of luggage waiting to be sorted, families wearing identification tags and waiting for transport. To many observers, her photograph of Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the flag shortly before they were sent to camp is a haunting reminder of this policy of detaining people without charging them with any crime.
Her images were so obviously critical that the Army impounded most of them, and they were not seen publicly for more than 50 years. Today her photographs of the internment are available in the National Archives on the website of the Still Photographs Division, and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.
California School of Fine Arts
In 1945, Lange was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position as faculty at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Imogen Cunningham and Minor White joined as well.
In 1952, Lange co-founded the photographic magazine Aperture. Lange and Pirkle Jones were commissioned in the mid-1950s to shoot a photographic documentary for Life magazine of the death of Monticello, California and of the displacement of its residents by the damming of Putah Creek to form Lake Berryessa. The magazine did not run the piece, so Lange devoted one whole issue of Aperture to the work. The photo collection was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960. Another series for Life magazine which she began in 1954 featured Martin Pulich, a lawyer, due to her interest in how poor people were defended in the court system which by one account grew out of her experience with her brother’s arrest and trial.
The Family of Man
Dorothea Lange assisted her friend Edward Steichen at MoMA, in recruiting photographers for his landmark international touring exhibition The Family of Man, using her FSA and LIFE connections who in turn promoted the project to their colleagues. In 1953 she circulated a recruiting letter; “A Summons to Photographers All Over the World,” calling on them “show Man to Man across the world. Here we hope to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man. Nothing short of that will do.” Lange's work features in the exhibition, which was seen by 9 million people around the world.
Death and legacy
In the last two decades of her life, Lange's health was poor. She suffered from gastric problems, including bleeding ulcers, as well as post-polio syndrome – although this renewal of the pain and weakness of polio was not yet recognized by most physicians.
Lange died of esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965, in San Francisco, California, at age 70. She was survived by her second husband, Paul Taylor, two children, three stepchildren, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In 1972 the Whitney Museum of American Art used 27 of Lange's photographs in an exhibit entitled 'Executive Order 9066'. This exhibit highlighted Japanese internment during World War II. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed his Executive Order 9066 in February, 1942, which eventually allowed the deportation of Japanese-, Italian-, and German-Americans to internment camps.
In 2006, an elementary school was named in her honor in Nipomo, California, near the site where she photographed "Migrant Mother".
On May 28, 2008, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver announced Lange's induction into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. The induction ceremony took place on December 15 and her son accepted the honor in her place.
On August 29, 2014, American Masters – Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning premiered on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network Directed and narrated from a unique perspective by Lange's granddaughter, Peabody- and five-time Emmy award-winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor, the film combines family memories and journals with never-before-seen photos and film footage as well as newly discovered interviews. A companion book, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, by Elizabeth Partridge, was published in 2013 and is the only career-spanning monograph of Lange's work in print.