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. In January, 1932, after a six month period spent in Taos with her husband, the painter Maynard Dixon, she and Dixon returned to San Francisco. As they drove back, they saw the signs of the Great Depression everywhere. This journey initiated a new direction in Lange’s career as she left portrait photography to become a documentary photographer, focusing on Depression-era rural life.
From 1935 to 1939, she worked 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. Her photographs were the most intensely human of all the photographs taken at that time.
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.
In 1936, Lange took five photographs in about ten minutes at a migrant camp in Nipomo, California for destitute pea pickers. One of these photos was the iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph of a woman of Cherokee descent – a fact unknown during Lange’s life. Lange was able to earn the trust of this woman and her children perhaps – in part – because of a limp in her right leg, caused by polio. Lange recalled that the young mother “seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” The mother is a Madonna cradling her children and nursing her baby.
Her late 1930s photographs show the poverty of rural people other than destitute migrants: a young mother, toeing the earth with her foot with her children behind her; a sharecropper posing with his diapered son before his shack; three children standing outside their house with one bike; lettuce pickers hunched over the earth; and “Tractored Out” dried earth that can’t grow crops.
In the early 1940s, Lange was hired by the American government to make a photographic record of the evacuation of Japanese Americans into internment camps. She photographed heartbreaking scenes in her War Relocation Authority series. The U.S. military commanders – after reviewing her photographs – realized that her contrary point of view was evident in her work. Therefore, they seized her photos for the duration of World War II and put them into the National Archives. There they were hidden and largely unseen until 2006 when Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro published their book “Impounded,” and then the photos received widespread attention.
Lange provided captions for her photographs which gave information about her subjects and background information. While these captions are helpful, her photographs do not depend on them for their meaning. “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually,” Lange said near the end of her life. She however did that with her thousands of 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-up frontal shots 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 in which America saw itself.
In 2020, New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented a retrospective of Lange’s work over her lifetime. Her 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.