Dorothea Lange and the FSA documentary photography project

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was forty years old when she began taking photographs for the FSA documentary photography project, under the direction of Roy Stryker. At that point she had behind her many years running her own portrait studio and two years taking photos out on the street to document the effects of the Depression on the people she encountered there.

Lange contributed about 2000 photos to the FSA project, including some of the most striking and iconic images of the period. Troubled by ill-health her career declined after the war, although she continued to travel - sometimes accompanied by Ansel Adams - in pursuit of photo-essays documenting stories important to her.

[I am grateful to my students in the U3A Genius of Photography group for asking me to guide discussion of Dorothea Lange's photography. It has motivated me to look again at her superb photographs and to re-read several books devoted specifically to her work. But it has also caused me to read more about women contemporaries such as Margaret Bourke-White, Marion Post Wolcott and Berenice Abbot. It has been really interesting to compare not only their approaches to photography but also their very distinct careers and life-experience. I have listed some of the most useful books in a bibliography at the foot of this page.]

Dorothea Lange (with one of the smaller of the cameras she used)

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"I believe in living with the camera, and not using the camera. Suddenly, if you are working a lot, it takes over and then you see meaning in everything. You don't have to push for it. That's what I mean by the visual life. Very rare."

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Dorothea Lange was born to a well-to-do family in thriving German enclave in Hoboken, New Jersey. (Her grandparents had emigrated in the late 1850s.) Her father was a lawyer, her mother a soloist in their church choir. Her brother, Martin, was six years younger and the family hired a maid to take care of housework.

When she was seven Dorothea contracted polio, causing her family to be shunned by frightened neighbours. Dorothea was left with a limp and a rolling gait. Because polio was seen as a disease of poverty her mother felt shame when Dorothea limped on the streets, and - among kids - Dorothea acquired the nickname 'Limpy'. About her polio, Lange later wrote:

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"I think it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me and it formed me, guided me, instructed, helped me and humiliated me. All those things at once."

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In 1907 when she was twelve, the family was summarily evicted from their home. Their father disappeared, probably having embezzled funds or committed fraud. Her mother took a job in a library and took Dorothea to work with her every day. Dorothea attended a nearby Jewish school (as the only gentile). Dorothea spent hours reading the books from the library. Walking home with her mother past drunken, depressed men along the Bowery, she learnt to develop what she called her "cloak of invisibility".

When she left school, Dorothea was sure she wanted to be a photographer - although at that point she had never taken a photograph. She managed to get a job at the studio of Arnold Genthe, initially doing admin but soon learning to operate the big 8 x 10 studio cameras. She built a darkroom in an abandoned chicken coop and enrolled in a seminar at Columbia University taught by Clarence White.

She set up her own studio in San Francisco and in 1920 married Maynard Dixon. She was 24, he 45 and with a ten-year-old daughter. He was a bohemian who cultivated an identity as a cowboy and disappeared for long trips to the Southwest. In 1923 Dorothea went with to Arizona and then onto the Navaho reservation. While he painted, she photographed.

Their two sons were born in 1925 and 1928. The stock market crash in October 1929 forced a move to New Mexico and Dorothea became weighed down with household chores and unable to do much photography. When they moved back to San Francisco, the children were boarded out and Dorothea and Maynard moved into separate studios. They had been growing apart.

One day, looking down from her studio window on Montgomery Street, observed the unemployed lining up for a soup kitchen run by a woman nicknamed the "White Angel". She hurried out and took her first street photographs.

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"I wasn't accustomed to jostling about in groups of tormented, depressed and angry men, with a camera. I was afraid of what was behind me -- not in front of me."

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The 'White Angel' breadline, San Francisco

Lange began heading out onto the streets to take photos, taking her brother, Martin with her for security. In the spring of 1934 she determined to photograph a big May Day demonstration despite the risk of violence. A few months

Roy Stryker

Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott.

Tim Chambers (on the excellent web-page at the end of the link below) writes:

"Dorothea Lange—well known for her FSA photographs like Migrant Mother—was hired by the U.S. government to make a photographic record of the “evacuation” and “relocation” of Japanese-Americans in 1942. She was eager to take the commission, despite being opposed to the effort, as she believed “a true record of the evacuation would be valuable in the future.”

The military commanders that reviewed her work realized that Lange’s contrary point of view was evident through her photographs, and seized them for the duration of World War II, even writing “Impounded” across some of the prints. The photos were quietly deposited into the National Archives, where they remained largely unseen until 2006."

After two months Lange's contract was terminated. There were several other photographers engaged to document the "resettlement" and, in 1943, Ansel Adams was asked to visit and photograph the same camp photographed by Lange. For detail about their visits click on the link below...

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Some of the most interesting books with material on Dorothea Lange

Let us now Praise Famous Women: Women Photographers for the US Government 1935 to 1944, Andrea Fischer, Pandora, 1987 (Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Pauline Ehrlich, Dorothea Lange, Martha McMillan Roberts, Marion Post Wolcott, Ann Rosener, Louise Rosskam)

Seeing America: Women Photographers between the Wars, Melissa A. McEuen, U. of Kentucky Press, 2000 (Doris Ulmann, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott)

Created By
Lloyd Spencer
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