Of all the photographers who documented the Great Depression none come close to Dorothea Lange. Her iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, now commonly known as the Migrant Mother, perfectly encapsulates what people went through during those tough times at the Dust Bowl.
Dorothea had a rather tough life growing up. She had to endure two painful events at a young age. The first was seeing her father leave her family. The second is her battle against polio. Dorothea survived both events but the polio has left her right leg weak and permanently limp. In an article by Corinna Wu she mentioned about her altered gait “I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and the power of it.”
“I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster, about the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About finality. About the last ditch.”
It is from these hardships that she experienced that helped her to be one of the greatest American documentary photographers known today. Because of these experiences she was able to empathize with her subjects. With the guidance of her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, a Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkley, Lange also understood the situation from a more political and economical standpoint. Lange’s images for the Farm Security Administration (where she and Taylor worked) has helped in bringing the plight of the poor and forgotten across America.
Documenting the suffering of the marginalized and putting them in headlines was certainly Lange’s calling. She even turned down the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in order to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans. Her images of the Japanese American internment had such profound effect that most of the images were impounded by the army only to see the light of day 50 years later.
“The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects”
“That frame of mind that you need to make fine pictures of a very wonderful subject, you cannot do it by not being lost yourself.”
Apart from being an accomplished documentary photographer, Lange was also an educator at the California School of Fine Arts and a co-founder of the Aperture. In both instances she was colleagues with famed photographers Ansel Adams and Minor White. Lange died of esophageal cancer in October 11, 1965 at the age of 70.
If you want to learn more about the life of Dorothea Lange you should definitely watch the wonderful documentary about her by PBS. If the video is unavailable you can watch Dorothea Lange – An American Odyssey by C. Thomas Anderson on Youtube.