Dorothea Lange

Word Count: 1887 |

As the most gifted photographer to ever expose the poverty and suffrage of the Depression Years, Dorothea Lange left the world the same way she had taken on life, “with courage, grace and, perhaps with an anticipation to experience the visual life in a new venue.” (Oliver 7). Born on the 26th of May, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Lange was the first child of Joan and Henry Nutzhorn. Little did young Dorothea know at the age of six, that her carefree happiness would soon come to an end. In 1902, she contracted a permanent disease, polio, which left her with a heavy limp in her right leg. Her mother was to be the sole-provider for the family when her father, the successful lawyer, left the family in 1907. As if dealing with polio were not enough to handle, Dorothea, her younger brother Martin, and her mother were soon forced to move in with Dorothea’s grandmother.
At the age of twelve, Dorothea was enrolled in the New York City public school system. Her adolescent years were those of her unhappiest. She felt as an outsider, living in a neighborhood and attending a school that was mostly populated by Jewish immigrants. This feeling as of unacceptance carried on through high school at the all-girls’, Wadleigh High, recalling having only one friend throughout the years.
Distancing herself from her social surroundings created an advanced appreciation for the visual aspect of life. Lange knew, by the young age of eighteen, that her lifelong passion was to be a photographer. She then embarked on her journey, and began working in Arnold Genthe’s studio while studying photography at Columbia University. In 1919, Lange opened up her own portrait studio in San Francisco, where she had moved the year before. She then became a member of the San Francisco Camera Club which aided her with the use of a community darkroom. It wasn’t long before she earned the reputation of being one of the best in the area. Soon did she marry Maynard Dixon, a charming painter, who was a profound influence on Lange. He taught Lange to “expose the public to those people whose existence, though often ignored, needed to be seen” (Oliver 8). They had two children, Daniel and John, during the fifteen year marriage.
Lange’s photographs were seen by Paul Schuster Taylor of California’s State Emergency Relief Administration who documented poor conditions and housing of agricultural migrant workers. He then hired Lange in 1934 to photograph for him. Together, they truly exposed the horrible conditions on the workers and prompted the federal government to fund $20,000 to build migrant housing projects. It wasn’t long before the two fell in love, divorced their spouses and married.
During the New Deal, Lange was hired as a government photographer and traveled for weeks at a time, which caused her to enroll her two sons in boarding school. In the early 1940’s, her continuous long hours and stress created a progression of gastro intestinal problems, but her poor health did not stop her from traveling with Taylor and photographing across the world. Her photographs were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and she was asked to create a retrospective exhibition of her work. Dying of cancer, Lange spent the next fourteen months putting it together. Lange passed away on October 11, 1965, in the arms of her soul mate, only a few weeks after she had finished her exhibition. Speaking about the opening in the museum, her final whispering words were: “Isn’t it a miracle that it comes at the right time?”
“Migrant Mother”, otherwise titled “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California” is the most famous of Lange’s photographs as well as one of the most well-known pieces from the Great Depression. The photo is of a mother with her two children huddling behind her neck, and a baby in her lap. She seems to be oblivious to the children as she stares off into the distance, to the left of the camera. Her face seems extremely dirty and wrinkled; her body, thin. The expression on her face displays a feeling of uncertainty, as though she is looking or waiting for something, yet still is somewhat blank. Her clothes are ragged and worn, and her shirt is unbuttoned in the front which seems as though the temperature is high.
The children’s faces are not shown in the picture and are hidden behind their mother. Both of them have short, dirty, tangled-looking hair, which also adds to the idea of high heat. They too are wearing worn-out clothes which appear to be too big for them. Their body expressions give the impression as though they are hiding from something or someone and are scared.
The baby cradled in his mother’s arms is sleeping and seems content. The mother appears not to be paying much attention to him as he is held by only one arm. The baby adds a touch to the photo, which tells us that the mother must be young herself, yet contradicts her worn face and wrinkles in her leather-looking skin.
There is a fabric material in the background, being held up and together by a wooden stick that is shown to the bottom, far-right of the photo. One can also observe that there is an opening on one end of the tent, the side that she is peering out of, due to the brightness of her face. Also, the fabrics of the clothing that the mother and two children are wearing seem to be the same, which tells us that she probably made all of their clothing.
The main focus of the photo is the mother and her elbow that is rested on her lap, where her arm is diagonal and her hand is touching her face. Her thumb is tucked under her chin and other four fingers are slightly touching her cheek. The way her hand is placed on her face gives off a feeling of anxiousness as is she’s awaiting someone; possibly she is looking for her husband. Her back is slouched over, shoulders tucked inward which make her look exhausted, and the way she is sitting and children are standing around her create a triangular shape leading up to her face.
At the time this photograph was taken, in 1936, Lange was working for the California Rural Rehabilitation Administration and was to document the living conditions of the migrant workers in Nipomo, California. Dorothea first saw the woman at a destitute pea picker’s camp and documented her experience: “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, and 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.” (Migrant Mother, 1).
Another one of Lange’s more popular photographs is “Drought Refugees from Oklahoma, Blythe, California, 1936”. In the picture is a man, who is the main focal point, which appears to be the father of a baby. The baby is being held and breastfed by the mother, who appears much younger than the father.
The man is lying down on a wooden deck or porch. His head is being propped up by his arm in a tired manner; his other arm lying down in front of him. His face is wrinkled and dirty, but not nearly as dirty as his hands. There also seems to be a wound on his left hand lying down on the deck. It is a round wound close to his wrist that has been bleeding. He is wearing a dirty, long-sleeved button down shirt with a collar that is unbuttoned at the top. His hair is sticking up and messy, and seems to have a bit of grey in it. The man is looking directly into the camera, with a confused and worried, yet blank look.
The mother is sitting with her legs crossed and her body faced towards the left, but her face turned more towards the camera. The baby is sitting upwards on her left leg breastfeeding and appears to be looking at the camera also, with frightened eyes. The two are sitting under a wood and fabric-rigged roof/cover. The woman is wearing a sleeve-less dress that looks as though the sewed it together out of material scraps. She has short, little above shoulder-length hair that is tucked back behind her ears and appears dirty or oily. Her mouth is slightly open and her eyebrows lowered which give her a tough yet frightened look. She is looking off into the distance to the left of the camera.
There is a tree with many leaves in the right side of the background, and an open area with trees far away in the left side of the background. In this photo, the female seems to be the stronger one; the man, defeated. Lange notes that they are “Dust Bowl” refugees who migrated to California to escape.
“Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Groe, Oklahoma, 1936” is also one of Lange’s more famous photographs, yet is much more moving than most. The photo is of a young girl, who looks no older than ten years old. She is standing in front of what looks like a tin wall.
Her hair is very short, about the same length on her head as her nose, and is pulled back tightly behind her ears. Her bottom lip and left eye are terribly swollen, along with dirt and scratches on her face, as though she has been beaten. She has very pale skin and is extremely thin. The girl is wearing a piece of cloth which is very dirty, that has been tied by her shoulder, as a shirt. Her right arm is tucked into a pocket in her shirt and her left is toughing her stomach as though there is pain.
The young girl has a cold expression as though she is angry, yet appears to be extremely tough and is not bothered by her physical pain. Her eyes are a solid black and she stares fixedly on the camera. Even though the photo is titled “Damaged Child”, she seems to be hardly a child at all, but one of the strongest humans during the Depression. Lange documents in a caption that “this retarded girl was abused and made an outcast” (Durden 48). Even though she is mentally retarded and has been beaten, she still seems to be willing to fight. This photograph portrays an extreme amount of emotion and ambition.
Dorothea Lange followed her heart and passion for photography and helped to better the living conditions of many all over the world. She lived instinctively, photographed spontaneously, and triggered emotions of many during not only the hardships of America, but everywhere. (Gordon 704). She has captured the feelings of families, children, and elders, and exposed them, showing to the public and the government that they needed help. Lange did not alter, nor pose her subjects, in fact didn’t even use the flash on her camera because it altered her subjects. After Lange passed away, her husband donated her collection of over 25,000 negatives to the Oakland Museum of California, which holds her largest, most comprehensive exhibit in the world. Photography is indeed one of the greatest art forms today, such as Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest photographers in history. “The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects. So that no one would say, ‘how did you do it, where did you find it,’ but they would say that such things could be.” (Lange 2).

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