Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother” 1936 shows a plaintive, destitute American woman surrounded by her children at the height of the Depression. This photo secured Lange’s place as one of the most distinguished documentary photographers of all time.
Born in New Jersey in 1895, Lange later moved west and opened a portrait studio in San Francisco in 1919. She traveled the Southwest, photographing Hopi Indians. From 1935 to 1939, she left her portrait studio to work for the Resettlement Administration, which would become the Farm Security Administration, a government agency that tried to help displaced farm workers, migrant workers, and the rural poor by hiring photographers to document the effects of the Depression on these people.
Lange said that her work was telling the story “of a people in their relation to their institutions to their fellowmen, and to the land.” That landscape of farms, signs, crossroads, buildings, and shacks traverses her photographs whether people are present or not.
Her late 1930s photographs show the poverty of rural people at that time: a young mother, toeing the earth with her foot, her children behind her; a sharecropper posing with his diapered son before his shack; three children standing outside their house with one bike; migrant mothers alone or with their children; and destitute migrant workers. In the early 1940s, Lange photographed heartbreaking scenes in her War Relocation Authority series, which documented Japanese Americans leaving their homes for internment camps.
Lange provided captions for her photographs which gave information about her subjects and background information. While these captions are helpful, her photographs are not dependent for their meaning on them. “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually,” Lange said near the end of her life. She did that with thousands of her images. “The good photograph,” Lange insisted, “is not the object. The consequences of the photograph are the object.”
Lange had a distinctive style: the close-ups of faces; close-ups of expressive hands and feet; processions of figures as they work a field or stand in line. She presented her struggling subjects with empathy and emphasized their dignity. She created photographic images that changed documentary photography and the way America saw itself.
Lange’s photographs and papers are preserved in the collection of The Oakland Museum, California. The Farm Security Administration prints are in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.