#WomeninMedia Spotlight – Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Dorothea Lange is one of the United State’s most prominent and influential photojournalists; she is best known for her photo documentaries during The Great Depression.

Lange began what we now know of today as “documentary photography”–she did so by roaming the streets and roads of California where unemployed or homeless citizens roamed during the height of the Depression.

Lange’s photographs truly portrayed the vast societal and economic upheaval caused by the Depression, and her new, revolutionary style of documentary photography humanized the many negative consequences of the Depression. Her work was so stirring that she was hired to work for the Farm Secutiry Administration (FSA), a New Deal program created to combat poverty in rural America.

Under the FSA, Lange’s photographs became iconic in bringing about public attention to those suffering the hardest amidst the Depression–specifically migrant workers and families, sharecroppers, and displaced farmers.

Lange’s most famous photograph is titled “Migrant Mother”, which was published in 1938. The photograph depicted a woman named Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of ten who had been living in a pea-picker’s camp in Nipomo Mesa, California. This poignant image became a poster of the Depression-era:

Lange’s “Migrant Mother”, 1938

In reflecting on her experience capturing this photo, Lange is quoted in saying:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

After viewing the conditions of the camps which Lange documented, a San Francisco newspaper editor contacted federal authorities about the images, causing the government to send aid to the camps to help the impoverished, starving citizens living there.

Aside from her Depression-era coverage, Lange also documented the travesties of the Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

She covered the forced evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans (and their subsequent incarceration), focusing on the anxiety these individuals and families had to endure. Most of her coverage took place throughout urban and rural California. She eventually focused on Manazar, the first of the permanent Japenese internment camps.

Unlike her Depression-era images, the U.S. government did not respond positively to her work; most of her images depicting Japnenese internment were impounded by authoirities and not seen by the public during wartime.

Nevertheless, Lange’s legacy left an immense mark on the field of photography. Her work has since been put in the Museum of Modern Art, and she has been recognized in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, and the California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts, among others.

You can read more about Lange and her career through these links: https://www.biography.com/artist/dorothea-lange, https://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/lklichfall13/files/2013/09/Lange.pdf

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