This is also the third of my Influences series that features photographers whose work has been a inspiration to me as a photographer. For more on Dorothea Lange, see part 4 of our series on The History of Street Photography.
Dorothea Lange (26 May 1895 – 11 October 1965) was born to offspring of German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey as Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn. Her father worked as a lawyer and was elected as a state representative at age 27. Dorothea, like the other iconic photographers, spent years learning her skill before reaching her peak.
“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.” — “American Eyewitness,” Corinna Wu
At 22, she and a friend decided to leave NYC and see the world, via San Francisco. Their short stay lengthened when their money was stolen and Dorothea took a job in a photographer’s studio, using her mother’s maiden name since her father had abandoned the family when she was 12. It had been the second traumatic incident of her childhood, the first being when she developed polio at age 7, weakening her right leg and leaving her with a permanent limp. The effects of polio would also follow her throughout her life, combining post-polio syndrome with bleeding ulcers that weakened her during the last two decades of her life.
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.”
Still, in 1918, limping, young, and inexperienced, within a year she’d opened a private studio with a wealthy clientele. By all accounts, she was dashing, charismatic, and bold in her pants, beret, and green cape. In this, she exhibited the four basic skills found in many famous street and portrait photographers: 1) The ability to the shot as it happens; 2) Enough confidence enough to take the shot; 3) Sufficient charm or people skills that subjects show their true natures to the camera; 4) Awareness of the mechanics of photography so that they can got the shot they wanted.
Dorothea did that in spades. By the mid-30s, she had left her photography studio for the street, doing her most iconic work for the Farm Security Administration between 1935 -1939 and distributed free to newspapers. She’s best known for her photo named “Migrant Mother” and depicting Florence Owens Thompson.
Dorothea later said this of the encounter:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
Contrary to how the shot appears and Ms. Lange’s story, Mrs. Thompson and her children were actually just sitting by the roadside in a ragged tent, awaiting the return of her husband and two sons, who’d gone to seek repairs for their car’s broken radiator and timing chain. They’d been stranded in a pea picker’s camp when the car’s timing chain snapped. The crops had been ruined by frost, and there was no work. After her husband left, Dorothea Lange showed up with her camera. Mrs. Thompson later claimed that the photographer never asked her any questions and she never mentioned any tires, all of which were on their car. It isn’t clear if Dorothea made up the story on purpose. She took 6 photos in 10 minutes, but used only 5. In the famous photo, the children turn away because they didn’t want their photo taken a 6th time. Here, in the first shot, at a distance, they are more relaxed. In truth, as the family revealed later, the photograph made them all feel ashamed to be poor.
Mrs. Thompson was less than thrilled when her identity was disclosed decades later, stating that Dorothea had promised her the photos would never be published. Thus, we find the 5th and final trait of all the great ones: if you must lie to get the shot, then lie, dammit. This is the documentary photographer’s moral dilemma. Although the above is the most well known, there are others from that set, including a very candid shot of a type Ms. Lange would known for — capturing the reality of impoverished motherhood as it was, without a veil or mystique. Life was and is hard for the poor. Mrs. Thompson was only 32, though she looked at least a decade older.
During this period, Dorothea was at her best, reinventing street photography to include country roads, fields, and anywhere else people were. It was no longer photography of the street, but of the people. (Click any photo to view the gallery.)
Find a way, get the shot.
During World War II, she produced her second most famous work, documenting Japanese Americans falsely interned by the U.S. government. After the war, she was hired on to teach at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) along with Imogen Cunningham and Minor White by Ansel Adams who’d also taken photos of the Japanese’s internment. She later co-founded the magazine Aperture, but little of her work after 1952 is as famous as her Depression-era work.