Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Dorothea Lange’s photographic journey was one of socio-political activism: despite running a successful portrait studio in San Francisco during the 1920s, Lange would bring her camera to the streets tainted by the Great Depression, photographing the lives of the dispossessed. She gained recognition through works such as White Angel Breadline (1933), joining the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) in early 1935. Documenting Dust Bowl migrants and rural poverty, her most famous image from this period, Migrant Mother (1936), demonstrates the power of photography for social reform: it’s possible that the publication of Migrant Mother on the San Francisco News persuaded the State Relief Administration to provide food rations for 2000 fruit pickers in Nipomo the day after.
However, Lange’s documentary work spans much further than the Depression. Recording life on the home front during World War 2, Lange would also use photographs like Just About to Step into the Bus for the Assembly Center (1942) to criticise the War Relocation Authority and the internment of Japanese Americans, incurring the risk of censorship from the government.
After the war, Lange’s work continued to highlight societal issues: for instance, Death of a Valley (1960) – both an exhibition and a special issue of Aperture magazine – looked at how irrigation projects displaced the community of Berryessa Valley. Lange also travelled internationally: going to rural Ireland for a Life magazine photo essay in 1954, and accompanying her husband Paul Taylor to communities in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America during his travels between 1958 to 1962.
In 1952, Dorothea Lange wrote in Aperture Magazine: “the photographer must prove that he has the passion and the humanity with which to endow the machine.” Lange’s documentary photography was her way of committing to humanity – often attempting to evoke the inner lives of those she photographed.