Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange


Inductee Sponsor: Patsy Hodge


“Compassion” litters the pages of text written about Dorothea Lange, whether outright spoken, or just insinuated. The compassion Dorothea Lange had and showed in her photography was rooted in her childhood experiences. But, compassion is not to be the only word used to describe her, her photography and her life. It would be impossible to use just one word.


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In January 1918, Dorothea quit the school for teachers. By then she had the skills to open a studio and be a portrait photographer, and this was her intent. However, she was ready to leave the East. With her childhood friend Fronsie, they gathered all of their money, approximately $140 and went West to San Francisco.

Dorothea found a job almost immediately as a photo-finisher at a department store. Her first day on the job she met Roi Partridge, whose wife was Imogen Cunningham. In no time at all, they developed a friendship, which lasted throughout their lives. Roi and Imogene introduced Dorothea to other artists and became part of a crowd where she felt she belonged. Her free, independent spirit was welcomed in the Bohemian crowds she described as free and easy livers. The were people who lived according to their own standards and did what they wanted to do in the way the wanted to do it. Desperately wanting to shed her past and do what she wanted to do, Dorothea dropped her father’s last name and took her mother’s maiden name and she readily took the opportunity to borrow money from a wealthy businessman to open her first studio.

She worked long and hard, but it soon paid off as her clientele grew quickly. Just a year after her studio opened, 1920, Dorothea married painter Maynard Dixon. With the marriage, Dorothea became a stepmom to Maynard’s ten-year-old daughter Consie. After five years of marriage, Maynard and Dorothea had a son of their own, Daniel, born May 15, 1925. Three years later, their second son, John was born June 12. Dorothea did not have as much time to devote to her photography as she would have liked, but she did maintain her studio. Life was hectic for the family and to add to the difficulties, Maynard’s health was deteriorating and the depression hit artists very hard.

While sitting in her studio in the early thirties, Dorothea began examining the streets. Fifteen million people were out of work and she began to visualize using her camera as a tool to record the suffering. In 1933 she took White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco. The depression was taking its toll on everyone and Dorothea, with this first print, wanted to immediately begin using photography to document the human condition.

While running her studio to pay the bills, Dorothea photographed people and places of the depression. In 1934 Willard Van Dyke exhibited some of her photographs in a gallery in Oakland. Paul S. Taylor, an economist, surveying the self-help organizations across the country visited the gallery and was very impressed with her work. He later asked Dorothea and several other photographers, including Imogen Cunningham to document his visit to the Unemployed Exchange Association that was established north of San Francisco. Taylor’s work soon landed him a position with the State Emergency Relief Administration. He was hired to observe and report the conditions of the people. He wanted a photographer, but not just any photographer. He asked for Dorothea Lange and she gladly joined his team.

She closed her studio in 1935 and traveled with Paul. Together they wrote and illustrated the “Taylor-Lange Reports,” which eventually led to funding the first two emergency California migrant camps. Having divorced Maynard in October, Paul and Dorthea married on December 6, 1935. Paul brought three children from his previous marriage and Dorothea had custody of her two boys. The new family, however, did not keep Paul and Dorothea from continuing their work. Soon Lange began working for the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. By this time Paul was back to teaching and Dorothea needed an assistant. Ron Partridge, son of Roi Partridge and Imogen Cunningham, was given the job. In 1936 Dorothea took her most recognized image, “Migrant Mother” while doing her fieldwork. Her work was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940-1941. In 1941, Dorothea was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in order “to do a photographic study of the American social scene.” Besides the FSA and other projects, Dorothea worked for the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the War Relocation Authority documenting the Japanese-American relocation, the Office of War and Information and the United Nations. She photographed all across California, the West Coast and the South.

In 1945 Dorothea became very ill. For almost ten years she hardly worked. Severe stomach pains prevented her to continue her documentary work. She was often confined to her house, however Dorothea enjoyed cooking, gardening and sewing and spending time with her growing family and friends. During the 1950s some of Dorothea’s photographs were included in exhibits, including “America’s Many Faces,” The Bitter Years,” and “The Family of Man.” Only on occasion could Dorothea work. When she was able, she would produce photo essays or write articles, including two she collaborated with her son, Dan Dixon, for Life. In 1958, Paul was sent to Asia to study the lives of rural families and Dorothea traveled with him, of course taking her camera. She made a series of images of their experiences overseas in Asia, South America and the Middle East. However, Dorothea’s health continued to plague her activities.

Dorothea died of cancer on October 11, 1965. During her last few years she worked with the Museum of Modern Art again, producing a retrospective show, which opened several months after her death. Dorothea Lange was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984.

By Lori Oden For IPHF