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“Compassion” litters the pages of text written about Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), whether outright spoken, or just insinuated. The compassion Dorothea Lange had and showed in her photography was rooted in her childhood experiences. But, compassion is not to be the only word used to describe her, her photography and her life. It would be impossible to use just one word.
To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking. I’ve only touched it, just touched it.
When Dorothea’s grandparents immigrated from Europe in the mid-1800s, they found their new home in Hoboken, New Jersey where Dorothea was the first born of two children. Her father was Henry Nutzhorn, a lawyer and her mother Joan was a soprano concert singer. There were two major events in Dorothea’s young life that marked her physically and mentally. In 1902, Dorothea came down with polio, which had no cure and almost always crippling if one survived the exhausting fevers and horrific pain. When her fever broke, Dorothea’s right leg was permanently damaged and for the rest of her life she walked with a limp. I think it perhaps was the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. All those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and the power of it. To many, this event is where Dorothea developed compassion for suffering, as she herself suffered. Throughout her childhood kids called her “limpy.” Her mother made the situation even more difficult, as often her mother would show obvious embarrassment of Dorothea’s limp.
At age twelve, Dorothea’s father left. He never returned and never tried to contact Dorothea or the family again. And why he left was never known. She very rarely spoke of him and how it hurt her. One of the few stories she recalled of her father throughout her lifetime was that he took her to a Shakespearean play one evening in a horse-drawn carriage. Although when they arrived all the seats were taken, he lifted her to his shoulders to watch the play.
In order to support the family, Joan took a job at the New York Public Library on the Lower East Side of New York. Quite a big change in such a tender time in her life, but Dorothea was a strong, independent child with a natural sense of freedom and purpose. The Lower East Side of New York was overcrowded with immigrants. In the early 1900s it was the most congested square mile in the world. While her mother worked, Dorothea went to Public School 62. She did not like school and did not do very well. She often skipped school and her mother never made sure she was attending. I was essentially neglected, thank God! Not deprived of love, but they just didn’t know where I was or how I was living. After school she went to the library to wait for her mother. It was there that Dorothea was supposed to do homework, but started looking at pictures instead. Two nights a week Joan had to work late and Dorothea had to walk home by herself. The only way home was across the Bowery, which was a nasty part of the city where drunks slept and thieves tried to sell stolen items. It was also known as “thieves highway.”
Crossing the Bowery, Dorothea learned how to not draw attention to herself, which would later be key to being a photographer working with the unemployed and homeless. Skipping school, according to Dorothea, enriched her life and although she barely graduated from high school in 1914, she had already developed the tools to become the kind of photographer she would eventually become. Upon her graduation, Joan looked at Dorothea’s grades and asked what she was going to do with her life. I want to be a photographer. Joan did not like or understand this answer. Dorothea had never taken a picture in her life; she never even owned a camera! So, Joan sent Dorothea to a school for teachers.
While going to school Dorothea decided to also begin her photography career. After school she began working under Arnold Genthe. He had a studio on Fifth Avenue and was well known for his pictures of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Genthe also had a well-established, well-known clientele, including President Roosevelt and Greta Garbo. Besides one class at Columbia University with instructor Clarence White, Dorothea learned photography by doing it.
In January 1918, Dorothea quit the school for teachers. By then she had the skills to open a studio and be a portrait photographer, and this was her intent. However, she was ready to leave the East. With her childhood friend Fronsie, they gathered all of their money, approximately $140 and went West to San Francisco.
Dorothea found a job almost immediately as a photo-finisher at a department store. Her first day on the job she met Roi Partridge, whose wife was Imogen Cunningham. In no time at all, they developed a friendship, which lasted throughout their lives. Roi and Imogene introduced Dorothea to other artists and became part of a crowd where she felt she belonged. Her free, independent spirit was welcomed in the Bohemian crowds she described as free and easy livers. The were people who lived according to their own standards and did what they wanted to do in the way the wanted to do it. Desperately wanting to shed her past and do what she wanted to do, Dorothea dropped her father’s last name and took her mother’s maiden name and she readily took the opportunity to borrow money from a wealthy businessman to open her first studio.
She worked long and hard, but it soon paid off as her clientele grew quickly. Just a year after her studio opened, 1920, Dorothea married painter Maynard Dixon. With the marriage, Dorothea became a stepmom to Maynard’s ten-year-old daughter Consie. After five years of marriage, Maynard and Dorothea had a son of their own, Daniel, born May 15, 1925. Three years later, their second son, John was born June 12. Dorothea did not have as much time to devote to her photography as she would have liked, but she did maintain her studio. Life was hectic for the family and to add to the difficulties, Maynard’s health was deteriorating and the depression hit artists very hard.
While sitting in her studio in the early thirties, Dorothea began examining the streets. Fifteen million people were out of work and she began to visualize using her camera as a tool to record the suffering. In 1933 she took White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco. The depression was taking its toll on everyone and Dorothea, with this first print, wanted to immediately begin using photography to document the human condition.
While running her studio to pay the bills, Dorothea photographed people and places of the depression. In 1934 Willard Van Dyke exhibited some of her photographs in a gallery in Oakland. Paul S. Taylor, an economist, surveying the self-help organizations across the country visited the gallery and was very impressed with her work. He later asked Dorothea and several other photographers, including Imogen Cunningham to document his visit to the Unemployed Exchange Association that was established north of San Francisco. Taylor’s work soon landed him a position with the State Emergency Relief Administration. He was hired to observe and report the conditions of the people. He wanted a photographer, but not just any photographer. He asked for Dorothea Lange and she gladly joined his team.
She closed her studio in 1935 and traveled with Paul. Together they wrote and illustrated the “Taylor-Lange Reports,” which eventually led to funding the first two emergency California migrant camps. Having divorced Maynard in October, Paul and Dorthea married on December 6, 1935. Paul brought three children from his previous marriage and Dorothea had custody of her two boys. The new family, however, did not keep Paul and Dorothea from continuing their work. Soon Lange began working for the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. By this time Paul was back to teaching and Dorothea needed an assistant. Ron Partridge, son of Roi Partridge and Imogen Cunningham, was given the job. In 1936 Dorothea took her most recognized image, “Migrant Mother” while doing her fieldwork. Her work was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940-1941. In 1941, Dorothea was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in order “to do a photographic study of the American social scene.” Besides the FSA and other projects, Dorothea worked for the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the War Relocation Authority documenting the Japanese-American relocation, the Office of War and Information and the United Nations. She photographed all across California, the West Coast and the South.
In 1945 Dorothea became very ill. For almost ten years she hardly worked. Severe stomach pains prevented her to continue her documentary work. She was often confined to her house, however Dorothea enjoyed cooking, gardening and sewing and spending time with her growing family and friends. During the 1950s some of Dorothea’s photographs were included in exhibits, including “America’s Many Faces,” The Bitter Years,” and “The Family of Man.” Only on occasion could Dorothea work. When she was able, she would produce photo essays or write articles, including two she collaborated with her son, Dan Dixon, for Life. In 1958, Paul was sent to Asia to study the lives of rural families and Dorothea traveled with him, of course taking her camera. She made a series of images of their experiences overseas in Asia, South America and the Middle East. However, Dorothea’s health continued to plague her activities.
Dorothea died of cancer on October 11, 1965. During her last few years she worked with the Museum of Modern Art again, producing a retrospective show, which opened several months after her death. Dorothea Lange was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984.
Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridige, Penguin Putnam Inc., © 1998.
Dorothea Lange by George P. Elliott, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966.
“Photographer Recorded Depression Era Artfully,” by Robert L. Pincus, Daily Oklahoman Weekend. Friday, July 29, 1994, page 5.
Seizing the Light: A History of Photography by Robert Hirsch.
A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum, 3rd Ed.
An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital, The Hallmark Photographic Collection
Photography in Print edited by Vicki Goldberg.
The Picture History of Photography by Peter Pollack, Harry N. Abrms, Inc. Publishers, New York.
The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall, The Museum of Modern Art
Let Us Now Praise Famous Women by Andrea Fisher, Pandora Press, New York, 1987.
Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers and Braodcasters During World War II, The Library of Congress
By Lori Oden For The International Photography Hall of Fame