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Dorothea Lange: Artist and Social Justice Activist

Dorothea Lange

Following a rapid expansion of the economy and a deadly pandemic, the world plunged into depression. The stock market crashed, millions of Americans lost their jobs, and half the country’s banks failed. No, we’re not talking about the 2020s, hopefully. We are talking about the 1930s, when Dorothea Lange took her most famous photographs. Her photographs awakened the American people and government agencies to the desperate plight of American poverty. Her 1936 photo, Migrant Mother, became one of the most famous photographs of all time. Migrant Mother depicts destitute pea pickers in California, with a focus on Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother of seven children.

Dorothea Lange Biography

Dorothea Lange was an American photographer and photojournalist. She is best known for her work during the Great Depression when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created to combat rural poverty in the United States.

Lange was born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey to second-generation German immigrants. She grew up in the New York City area in a middle-class family. Her parents were advocates for education and exposed Dorothea and her brother Martin to literature and art. Lange contracted polio at age seven and was left with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp. Despite her disability, she spent much of her life walking around, observing the world around her, looking for opportunities to take interesting photographs.

Lange’s parents separated when she was young, and later divorced. She blamed the separation on her father and eventually took her mother’s maiden name, Lange, as her own. After her parents separated, Dorothea’s mother got a job working in a library in the Lower East Side of New York City. She sent Dorothea to school at Intermediate Public School 62 on the Lower East Side, and she and her mother commuted to work and school every day from New Jersey.

After school, Dorothy often walked around the city, filling her eyes with the noisy life in the populated neighborhoods of tenement homes and storefronts. She would later say that she learned to see on these walks. (Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.)

After graduating from PS 62, Dorothea enrolled in Wadleigh School for Girls, which was located in a more upscale neighborhood than her grade school had been, but she was not a good student. She often skipped school and continued her walks around the city. Dorothea graduated from high school in 1912 and enrolled in New York College for the Training of Teachers, but soon dropped out. She went on to study photography at Columbia University in New York City and took a class from famed photographer Clarence H. White, who inspired her to develop a personal vision and style for her work.

In 1918, Dorothea left New York to travel the world with a girlfriend, but they only made it as far as San Francisco before they ran out of money. Lange found work as a photo-finisher in a photographic supply shop. She also became acquainted with other photographers, wealthy socialites, and some investors who helped her establish a successful portrait studio. In 1920, Lange married western painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons, Daniel, born in 1925, and John, born in 1930.

After the stock market crashed in 1929, Lange began work on the social documentary photos that would make her most famous. She started photographing striking laborers and bread lines in San Francisco and caught the attention of economist Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley and an advocate for migrant farm workers.

Research Photographer

In 1935, Paul Taylor asked Lange to accompany him as a research photographer on a study of migrant laborers in California for the State Emergency Relief Administration. Later that year, both Taylor and Lange obtained divorces and married each other, beginning a lifelong professional and romantic relationship. Lange and Taylor didn’t have any children together, but were parents to Lange’s two sons from her first marriage and Taylor’s three children. They lived in Berkeley, CA when not traveling.

Lange and Taylor shared a passion for documenting and eliciting help for destitute and displaced people. In 1935 they produced five reports on the conditions of migrant agricultural workers, and used their data to get state and federal funding to help farm workers find housing. They traveled in California, the Southwest, and the Midwest, documenting rural poverty and the exploitation of sharecroppers and migrant laborers. Taylor interviewed subjects and gathered economic data, while Lange took photographs.

Lange’s poignant 1935 photo of a displaced girl shows the heartbreak that was prevalent in such places as the resettlement facility in Bosque Farms, New Mexico. The U.S. Resettlement Administration bought the Bosque Farms land in 1935 to turn it into an agricultural resettlement home for Dust Bowl refugees. Forty-two families lived and farmed in the area, living in tents until homes were built for them.

Resettled Farm Child from Taos Junction to Bosque Farms Project

Dorothea Lange, Resettled Farm Child from Taos Junction to Bosque Farms Project, 1935, New Mexico. Library of Congress.

Dust Bowl Photos

In 1939, in collaboration with her husband Paul Taylor, Lange published the photo-book, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. The book combines words and photographs to convey the human impact of the Dust Bowl migration. The book includes field notes, folk song lyrics, newspaper excerpts, observations from contemporary sociologists, and first-person quotations from sharecroppers and migrant workers.

The photos and quotes in the book are heartbreaking in their honesty about the hard times people were facing. For example, one migrant agricultural laborer, a refugee from Texas, who was living in Wasco, California, said,

“People just can’t make it back there, with drought, hailstorms, windstorms, dust storms, insects. People exist here and they can’t do that there. You can make it here if you sleep lots and eat little, but it’s pretty tough, there are so many people. They chase them out of one camp because they say it isn’t sanitary – there’s no running water – so people live out here in the brush like a den o’ dogs or pigs.”

A photo from a few years earlier shows farmers still living in Texas who have come to town, possibly to console each other or just to talk about their struggles.

Dust bowl farmers of west Texas in town

Dorothea Lange, Dust bowl farmers of west Texas in town, 1937. Library of Congress.

Another photo from this time has a more hopeful feel to it as we notice that the kids at least don’t seem too worried. The photo never became as famous as Migrant Mother, perhaps because the emotions that it expresses are more ambiguous than the despair that people read into the face of the mother in Migrant Mother.

Oklahoma mother of five children, now picking cotton in California, near Fresno

Dorothea Lange, Oklahoma mother of five children, now picking cotton in California, near Fresno, 1936. Library of Congress.

Japanese Internment Photos

After the Great Depression ended, Lange continued her work to showcase the lives of underprivileged people, creating a series on the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II, at the request of the War Relocation Authority (WRA). She traveled around urban and rural California to photograph families who were preparing to leave, documenting the objects they chose to take with them. She visited several temporary assembly centers as they opened, and eventually photographed permanent internment camps. Her images were so obviously critical of the forced evacuation that the Army impounded most of them, and they were not seen publicly until after the war.

Later Years

In 1945, Ansel Adams invited Lange to teach at the California School of Fine Arts, now known as the San Francisco Art Institute, in the school’s first fine art photography department. She also collaborated with Ansel Adams to document life in Utah Mormon communities. The Oakland Museum of California houses these photos and Lange’s personal archive, a gift the artist made to the museum that includes 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes, and personal memorabilia.

In 1953 and 1954 Lange worked with Edward Steichen on “The Family of Man,” an exhibition that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City organized to celebrate the universal aspects of the human experience. According to MoMA, the exhibition was “a forthright declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II.” Steichen selected 503 images from numerous prints that were submitted from all over the world, including several of Lange’s photographs. Almost nine million people in 37 countries viewed the exhibition.

Over the next ten years Lange traveled around the world, taking documentary photos in Ireland and throughout Asia, the Middle East, and South America. In the last two decades of her life, Lange’s health suffered as she experienced recurrences of the pain and weakness from the polio that she had as a child. She died of esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965, in San Francisco at age seventy. Three months later, MoMA exhibited a retrospective of her work, which Lange had helped curate. It was MoMA’s first one-person retrospective by a female photographer. MoMA exhibited her work again in 2019 with a focus on the American Exodus book.

Artistic Accomplishments

Although Lange’s photographs have a social-justice theme, they are also beautiful. Lange was committed to what she called the “visual life” and sought beauty in the faces and landscapes she saw while traveling in poverty-stricken areas. She showed the textures in the skin and clothing of her subjects in the same manner that a realistic painter would.

Lange’s documentary photographs aren’t just documents; they are also art. Her compositions borrow techniques from modernism, using dramatic angles and stark imagery to startle the viewer. Her work makes us think about the inner lives of the subjects. It goes beyond simple journalism, although she did consider herself a journalist. Her photos move us and cause a sense of sadness or desolation, as we think about the numerous people who were displaced by the twin disasters of the Dust Bowl drought and the Great Depression. Lange’s photos also show us the resilience, dignity, and individuality of the people she photographed. They are all different and all interesting.

Towards Los Angeles, California

Dorothea Lange, Towards Los Angeles, California, 1937. Library of Congress.

Social Activism

Natalie Dupêcher, an independent art scholar, wrote in a 2018 article for MoMA that “Lange had little interest in classifying her photographs as art: she made them to effect social change.” She photographed her subjects to call attention to their plight. She traveled in California, the Southwest, and the South to document the hardships of migrant farmers, sharecroppers, and former slaves.

Country Store on Dirt Road Sunday Afternoon

Dorothea Lange, Country Store on Dirt Road Sunday Afternoon, 1939, Gordonton, North Carolina. Library of Congress.

In this moving and informative video from the Getty Museum, Lange refers to her subjects as “the deprived and the dislocated, the rootless and helpless.” She clearly had sympathy for her subjects and photographed them to elicit sympathy in others. Lange’s photograph of lettuce pickers shows the back-breaking labor that migrant workers were required to do. The photo still resonates with us today, as we think about modern farm laborers who are still working extremely hard while living in harsh conditions and receiving low wages.

Six LettucePickers

Dorothea Lange, Six Lettuce Pickers, 1935. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Lange also depicted the plight of farmers who were being displaced by automation and what was called “power farming”. Power farming refers to the use of agricultural machinery to mechanize the work of agriculture. Once again, we can relate to this in modern times, as family farmers are being replaced by huge agribusinesses.

Power farming displaces tenants from the land in the western dry cotton area

Dorothea Lange, Power farming displaces tenants from the land in the western dry cotton area, 1938, Childress County, Texas. Library of Congress.

Lange’s work resonated with the public, who in 1932 had elected Franklin D. Roosevelt by a wide margin, defeating President Herbert Hoover, who was widely criticized for not doing enough to combat the economic crisis that had befallen America. A majority of Americans approved of Roosevelt’s relief plan, the New Deal, which included programs for economic support, recovery, and reform. Lange’s artwork helped the public see that, despite the New Deal, more work needed to be done.

Lange was inspired by the times she lived in. With her second husband, who was a progressive professor of economics, she worked to make America a more fair, just, and equitable society. She wished to energize the voices calling for change in the 1930s. She disagreed with the policies of the 1920s that were characterized by corruption, self-dealing, and a lack of caring for the non-moneyed majority.

In her book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, biographer and historian Linda Gordon says that she considers Lange “a photographer of democracy, and for democracy.” Gordon goes on to say, “Despite the miseries and fear that it engendered, the Depression created a moment of idealism, imagination, and unity in Americans for their country. No photographer of the time, perhaps no artist of the time, did more than Lange to advance this democratic vision.” (Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.)

From Lange’s own impassioned words to her boss, Roy Stryker, we get a glimpse of how she felt about the desperate situation that migrants were facing as they sought work in the California fields.

“I was forced to switch from Nipomo to the Imperial Valley because of the conditions there. They have always been notoriously bad as you know and what goes on in the Imperial is beyond belief. The Imperial Valley has a social structure all its own and partly because of its isolation in the state, those in control get away with it. But this year’s freeze practically wiped out the crop and what it didn’t kill is delayed. In the meanwhile, because of the warm, no rain climate and possibilities for work, the region is swamped with homeless moving families. The relief association offices are open day and night 24 hours. The people continue to pour in and there is no way to stop them and no work when they get there.” (Library of Congress)

On March 10, 1936, two of Lange’s photographs of the Nipomo pea pickers’ camp were published in The San Francisco News under the headline “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor.” The photograph that became known as Migrant Mother was published in the newspaper the following day with an editorial titled “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean To This Mother and Her Children?” The same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the State Relief Administration would deliver food rations to 2,000 itinerant fruit pickers in Nipomo the next day.

Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936, Nipomo, CA. Library of Congress.

People often wonder about the mother depicted in Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother. The mother is Florence Owens Thompson. Thompson was 32 at the time of the photo and had already given birth to seven children. She was of Cherokee descent and grew up in Indian Territory in what is present-day Oklahoma. She married Cleo Owens when she was 17, but unfortunately Cleo died of tuberculosis in 1931 when Florence was only 27 or 28. At the time of the photo, Florence was living with Jim Hill whom she later married and had three more children with.

The day the photo was taken, Thompson and her family were traveling from Southeastern California on U.S. Highway 101 to Watsonville, where they had heard there was work for lettuce pickers. When their car broke down near a pea-pickers camp, they were shocked to discover 2,500-3,500 people living in the camp, many of them barely getting by because the crops had been destroyed by freezing rain. Jim Hill and some of the kids went into town to get the car fixed while Thompson and the other kids set up camp. They were huddled together in their tattered tent when Lange discovered them.

Lange had just finished a month-long assignment chronicling the plight of migratory farm laborers near Los Angeles. She was driving north along Highway 101 to her comfortable home in the Berkeley foothills when she passed a crude wooden sign on the side of the road near Nipomo that said “Pea-Pickers Camp.” Lange had already collected numerous field notes and photographs on her recent trip, and at first resisted the temptation to pull over and take more photos. Twenty minutes later, just before she reached San Luis Obispo, Lange changed her mind, made a U-turn, and headed back to the camp. (Dunn, Geoffrey. “Photographic license.” New Times, 2002)

Lange worked quickly, taking 7 photos in a 10 minute period with her Graflex camera. Lange barely talked to Thompson, and may not have written much down. Unlike with most of her other work, according to this New York Times article, there are no known field notes from Lange about the photoshoot that day. She was probably tired from a long day of driving, and was hoping to get home in time for dinner. According to Thompson, Lange promised the photos would never be published, but Lange sent the photos to The San Francisco News even before sending them to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C.

Lange didn’t learn much about the woman she photographed. She later recalled, “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.” (Library of Congress)

Thompson’s son says that they hadn’t sold the tires. He recalled, “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

A Contrary Point of View

Lange had great sympathy for the downtrodden people she photographed. On the other hand, perhaps she didn’t really understand the plight of the poor, as indicated by her belief that there was a “sort of equality about it” when she photographed Migrant Mother.

A 2018 article in Conscientious Photo Magazine, a website dedicated to contemporary fine-art photography, argues that there’s an element of exploitation when a more wealthy photographer takes photographs of people living in poverty. There’s a power imbalance that often doesn’t result in the impoverished people getting the help that the photographer wants to believe they will get. There’s also an issue of consent. In some cases, the subjects of the photos lack the power or privilege to not be portrayed as a member of an impoverished group of people.

Although the Migrant Mother photograph became famous, Florence Thompson’s identity was not known until 40 years later. Her family didn’t benefit from the photo and had already moved on when publication of the photo resulted in food being delivered to the camp. Thompson and her family settled in Modesto, California, in 1945. Many years later, Thompson met and married hospital administrator George Thompson which brought her some financial security. She died of stroke, cancer, and heart problems in Scotts Valley, California, on September 16, 1983 at the age of 80.

Thompson was buried in Lakewood Memorial Park, in Hughson, California. Her gravestone reads: “FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”

Dorothea Lange’s Legacy

Dorothea Lange influenced generations of photojournalists and photographers. The magazine that she co-founded with other photographers, Aperture, is still published four times a year. It features photographs by established and emerging photographers, as well as articles by critics, scholars, and photographers. Lange founded the magazine in 1952 with Ansel Adams, Melton Ferris, Ernest Louie, Barbara Morgan, Beaumont Newhall, Nancy Newhall, Dody Warren, and Minor White. At the time, it was the first journal since Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work to explore photography as a fine art.

Lange encouraged photographers to connect with the real world. In an essay she wrote with her son in 1952, she said, “That the familiar world is often unsatisfactory cannot be denied, but it is not, for all that, one that we need abandon. We need not be seduced into evasion of it any more than we need be appalled by it into silence. Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs… But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.” (Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon, “Photographing the Familiar,” Aperture 2, 1952.)

Some of the most famous photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries followed in Lange’s footsteps, documenting the horrors of poverty, famine, and war. In the work of more recent photographers, such as Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, Diane Arbus, Zoe Strauss, and Kevin Carter, we can see the influence of Lange. Like Lange, these photographers use their cameras to show us the lives of people living on the fringes of society. They help us see the injustice around us that can be so easy to ignore.

Lange’s images brought the plight of the poor and forgotten to the public’s attention. Her photos of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers helped humanize the consequences of the Great Depression. The photos still resonate with people today, especially as we see the resurgence of food banks and government aid to help the unemployed. As was the case in the 1930s, here in the 2020s, we need to embrace a world where we show empathy for vulnerable populations. Art, and especially photography, can help us see societal inequalities and inspire us to help our neighbors.

Lange’s photos aren’t just a call to pity though. In her portraits of Dust Bowl refugees, we see the resilience and dignity of the people. We also see their individuality and complexity. The photos show that hard work comes in many forms, whether it’s working in the fields, or working to set up camp while escaping a drought and searching for work.


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