Dorothea Lange

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Dorothea Lange in 1936

Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895October 11, 1965) was an influential documentary photographer. Lange is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.

Born in Hoboken New Jersey, Lange began her career in New York, later migrating to San Francisco where she opened a portrait studio in 1918. With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street.

Her searing studies of homelessness immediately captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the FSA. From 1935 to 1940, Lange's work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten, particularly displaced farm families and migrant workers, to public attention. Distributed free of charge to newspapers across the country, her poignant images quickly became icons of the era.

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This photograph, known as Migrant Mother, is probably Dorothea Lange's most famous. It supposedly depicts destitute pea pickers in California, centering on a mother of seven children, age thirty-two, in Nipomo, California, March 1936. The woman in the picture is actually Florence Owens Thompson, farmer, who was staying there until her friend and her boys came back with help for their broken down car.

Her most famous photograph, commonly known as Migrant Mother (pictured left), was the sixth and last frame taken of Lange's haphazard visit to a migrant workers' campsite. She had initially passed the campsite, but twenty minutes later, she turned around on the highway to take another look. Rumor has it that the two younger children's faces are turned away from the camera because they were smiling and laughing during the picture, but none of the six frames shows them laughing or smiling. Lange had them turn away to give the image a more solemn, desperate mood. In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:

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.

In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans (Nisei) to relocation camps in the American West.

On October 11, 1965, Lange died in San Francisco at the age of seventy.

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