Sometimes, all it takes is one photograph to cement the reputation of a photographer. Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange has that kind of reputation, but one photograph is not enough to show the hard work and passion she put into her documentary career. Capturing haunting images of the Great Depression, she found pockets of humanity from which she drew her inspiration.
Dorothea Lange is one of the foremost documentary photographers of the 20th Century, famed for her brutally honest pictures of the Great Depression, but she began her career in photography taking portraits of the upper class of San Francisco in the 1920s and early 1930s. As the Depression hit the city, she turned her camera to the unemployed and restless crowds outside her studio.
Her first few images in this new documentary style caught the attention of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). She was then tasked to document the of out-of-work laborers, sharecroppers and immigrants who were hit hard by the economic downturn of the country. In her company of FSA photographers were the likes of Walker Evans and Jack Delano, some of whom recorded the era in beautiful vivid color.
Lange's work during this time produced many iconic images of that time. Famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, in her book "At Work", recounts a story by Lange:
"After spending a month on the road in southern California she was finally heading home. It was raining and she was exhausted and she had a long drive ahead of her. She [Dorothea Lange] has been working up to fourteen hours a day for weeks and was bringing back hundreds of pictures of destitute farm workers.
Somewhere south of San Luis Obispo she saw out of the corner of her eye a sign that said PEA-PICKERS CAMP. She tried to put it our of her mind. She had plenty of pictures of migrant farmers already. She was worried about her equipment, and though about what might happen to her camera in the rain. She drove for about twenty miles past the sign and made a U-turn. She went back to the sign and turned down a muddy road.
A woman was sitting with her children on the edge of a huge camp of makeshift tents. There were maybe three thousand migrant workers living there. Lange took out her Graflex and shot six frames, one of them of the woman staring distractedly off to the side while two of her children buried their faces in her shoulders.
The image of the woman and her children became the most important photograph of Dorothea Lange’s life and the iconic picture of the Depression." [text source]
That now famous photograph, entitled Migrant Mother, is the header image above and depicts Florence Owens Thompson, a mother, worriedly looking out as her small children cling to her for comfort.
In the 1940s, Lange turned her attention to World War II, only she didn't go to Europe as other photographers did. Instead, she she turned her camera inward, covering the infamous internment of Japanese Americans. Her photographs during this time serve as a chilling warning of how the government exercised its power (some say unconstitutional) of detaining people without charge.
After the war, she continued to passion for photography, traveling around the world on assignment for Life magazine, and teaching at the California School of Fine Arts on the invitation of Ansel Adams.
To honor her life, the University of California-Berkeley created the Dorothea Lange Fellowship. Duke University also awards the Lange-Taylor Prize to outstanding collaborations between writers and photographers. In 2008, Dorothea Lange was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
The US Library of Congress has an extensive collection of Dorothea Lange photographs, but for better quality pictures, try browsing the gallery at Shorpy. Also, more inspirational photographs in the books Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field and Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.