Hello Photoion students and photography fans, today we’ve got another entry in our masters of photography series for you. This series looks at the life and work of some of the 20th century’s most important photographers.
Today we are taking a look at the work of American photographer, Dorothea Lange.
Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895 to a family of German immigrants. After her father abandoned her family, she changed her last name to Lange, her mother’s maiden name. At the age of seven, Lange was diagnosed with Polio which left her with muscle damage and a permanent limp. Later in life, Lange would go on to say that her Polio helped to “form” her as a person.
Before Lange ever stepped behind the lens, she knew that she wanted to become a Photographer. After graduating High School, she studied photography at New York’s Columbia University. During her time in university, she was taught by the famous photographer Clarence Hudson White.
However, Lange’s style soon moved away from portraiture of the elite to documenting the everyday life of American’s on the street. Her first body of work caught the attention of the Resettlement Administration, who offered her a job documenting the administration’s efforts to relocate people across America.
It was during this time that Lange captured perhaps her most iconic image, Migrant Mother. Lange was capturing images for the Resettlement Administration in a resettlement camp in California.
While documenting conditions in the camp, Lange was drawn to the titular woman, Florence Owens Thompson, and began talking to her. Though she didn’t ask Thompson’s name at the time, Lange learned that Thompson and her family had been living on frozen vegetables and birds her children had killed.
Lange gave her editor the images of the Migrant Mother when she returned to the RA offices and they were later included in the free newspapers distributed across the country.
The image and Thompson’s story prompted the government to take action and provide food relief to the camp.
Lange says she took several photos of Thompson, getting closer and closer with each shot to allow her a range of images to choose from, each offering a different view of the background camp. In the end, she settled on a tight shot with a simple composition, focusing on the emotions of the Mother and her situation.
That was not the first time that Lange’s photos would be instrumental in covering a major event. She spent much of her life capturing events and, in many ways, coming to define the method for documentary photography for years to come.
Some of her most iconic work is during the Japanese internment of WWII. Lange gave up a grant she had received for winning the Guggenheim Fellowship so that she could document the lives of the Japanese-Americans who were placed in camps across California.
Lange’s images focused on the human aspect of the internment, capturing images of the prisoners pledging allegiance to the flag, or waiting to move between areas. Her photos were so honest and laid bare the goings-on in the camp that most of them were detained and kept from publication until after the war.
But nevertheless, Lange persisted and continued capturing images and documenting this dark period of American history, and it is this tenacity and resilience that made her one of the best documentary photographers of the 20th century.