By Corinna Wu
Nearly 45 years after her death from esophageal cancer, Dorothea Lange’s Great Depression photographs remain an inspiration
By Corinna Wu
The woman in the black-and-white photograph gazes into the distance, her tanned face lined with a worried expression. A pair of tousle-haired children cling to her, their faces turned away from the camera. A third child lies sleeping in the woman’s arms, hidden within the folds of a ragged, dirty coat.
The picture, Migrant Mother, was taken in February 1936 by Dorothea Lange, who had been asked by the Farm Security Administration to document the living and working conditions of field workers in California. Having captured the plight of Midwestern farmers who were forced to flee the Dust Bowl and move west in search of work, the picture became the iconic image of the Great Depression. Yet it would take more than 30 years for Lange to receive widespread recognition for her photography.
A Focused Life
It wasn’t just chance that allowed Lange to frame that image. As historian Linda Gordon explains in Dorothea Lange: A life beyond limits, Lange’s skills had been years in the making. Born Dorothea Nutzhorn in 1895, Lange grew up in the New York City suburb of Hoboken, N.J. Her father worked as a lawyer and was elected as a state representative at age 27. According to Gordon, the family “belonged to the elite among Hoboken’s middle class.” After Lange graduated from high school, she decided to become a photographer—even though she’d never even held a camera. Without introduction, she walked into the New York City studio of photographer Arnold Genthe, famous for his photos of the dancer Isadora Duncan, and talked herself into a job as a general assistant so that she could learn the art of photography.
At 22, Lange and a friend decided to leave New York and travel around the world. They arrived in San Francisco in May 1918, and what was expected to be a short visit turned into a long stay after their money was stolen. She applied for a job at a photography shop using her mother’s maiden name, Lange, and her life as a professional photographer soon began.
Before long, Lange married the painter Maynard Dixon, opened her own portrait studio and built up a wealthy clientele. During that time, she and Dixon could often be found at the restaurant Coppa’s, where they drank copious amounts of wine with their artist friends. “By all reports, she was extremely charismatic,” Gordon says. “She wore pants, a beret and a green cape. She cut quite a dashing figure.”
In 1934, Lange met Paul Taylor, a progressive economist at the University of California at Berkeley. They fell in love, divorced their spouses, and married in 1935. It was Taylor who helped Lange get the job with the Farm Security Administration as a photographer. The couple drove all over California, with Taylor interviewing farmworkers as Lange took photos. If Taylor hadn’t set Lange up with the job with the federal government, “we would never have heard of her,” Gordon says. “He taught her about the sociology and economy of the people she was photographing. She was not just photographing images; she was photographing situations that she actually understood.”
(photo: Library of Congress)