A  Pioneer in Documentary Photography: Dorothea Lange

A Pioneer in Documentary Photography: Dorothea Lange

In honor of women who helped define documentary photography, we’re profiling iconic documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange.

Lange was one of the preeminent and pioneering documentary photographers of the 20th century. She is best known for her work during the 1930s with Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Lange decided to become a photographer after working in a NYC photo studio. She studied at Columbia University, and then became an apprentice, working for several different photographers, including Arnold Genthe, a leading portrait photographer. In 1917, she also studied with Clarence Hudson White at his prestigious school of photography.

Lange’s first real foray into documentary photography came in the 1920s when she traveled the Southwest photographing Native Americans. As the Great Depression hit she turned her camera on her own San Francisco neighborhoods, capturing the breadlines and labor strikes throughout the city. Her photos of the homeless and unemployed in San Francisco’s breadlines, labor demonstrations, and soup kitchens led to a job with the Farm Security Administration. Drawing on her strength as a portrait photographer, her photographs of the displaced families and sharecroppers brought the hardship of the Dust Bowl into the public eye.

Throughout the 1930s Lange traveled throughout the United States documenting mostly rural hardship for the Farm Security Administration. Her body of work includes the iconic image entitled “Migrant Mother” which captured the pain and hardship of rural Americans at the time.

In 1940, Lange became the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for excellence in photography.

As America was drawn into World War II, Lange began working for the Office of War Information where she photographed the internment of Japanese Americans. Her images of the Japanese community were so compelling and critical of the treatment of the detainees that the Army impounded them. The photos weren’t seen for more than twenty years, including by Lange herself. Finally in 2006, her work was published in a work entitled Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.

Lange’s many contributions to photography, besides her photographs, include co-founding Aperture, a small publishing house producing high-end photography books. She also worked for Life Magazine documenting life in Utah, Ireland and Death Valley.

Lange’s photography continues to influence documentary photographers and photojournalists today. She had a special way of getting in close and capturing the raw moments of life.


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