Drought refugee’s car on U.S. Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Famoso, California.
Published - November 1937
Dorothea Lange the Photographer
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) has been called America's greatest documentary photographer. She is best known for her chronicles of the Great Depression and for her photographs of migratory farm workers. Below are 42 pre-World War II photographs she created for the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) investigating living conditions of farm workers and their families in Western states such as California. Most of the workers had come west to escape the Dust Bowl, the lengthy drought which devastated millions of acres of farmland in Midwestern states such as Oklahoma.
Born of second generation German immigrants on May 26, 1895, at 1041 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange was named Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn at birth. She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother’s maiden name after her father abandoned the family when she was 12 years old, one of two traumatic incidents early in her life. The other was her contraction of polio at age seven which left her with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp. “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” Lange once said of her altered gait. “I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”
Lange was educated in photography at Columbia University in New York City, in a class taught by Clarence H. White. She was informally apprenticed to several New York photography studios, including that of the famed Arnold Genthe. In 1918, she moved to San Francisco, and by the following year she had opened a successful portrait studio. She lived across the bay in Berkeley for the rest of her life. In 1920, she married the noted western painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons. One, born in 1925, was named Daniel Rhoades Dixon. The second child, born in 1930, was named John Eaglesfeather Dixon.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street. Her studies of unemployed and homeless people captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
In December 1935, she divorced Dixon and married economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Taylor educated Lange in social and political matters, and together they documented rural poverty and the exploitation of sharecroppers and migrant laborers for the next five years — Taylor interviewing and gathering economic data, Lange taking photos.
From 1935 to 1939, Dorothea Lange’s work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten — particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers — to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era.
Dorothea Lange changed the world because of how she saw it and photographed it. She had polio as a child and had a heel that never touched the ground. Her father abandoned the family when she was young. Her marriage failed and her kids blamed her for never being home. Nothing stopped her from telling the stories that needed telling.
Sights and Sounds of the Farm Security Administration
In the depths of the Great Depression of 1929, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration. Within the FSA was a photography unit headed by economist Roy Stryker, consisting of now world renowned photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke White. Their assignment was to capture on film the deep poverty ravaging the nation, in order to convince the American people to support FDR's New Deal.
This documentary short combines universal images, sound recordings of music of the 30s and interviews with people living in the government migrant camps FDR created in California. The camps formed the basis of the novel and movie classic, The Grapes of Wrath. What started out as a project to convince Americans to accept Roosevelt's New Deal, became a permanent photographic monument to survival. The FSA photographic collection mirrors what FDR is most known for,hope and optimism against all odds.