1895, Hoboken, New Jersey
1965, San Francisco, Bay Area
Dorothea Lange was a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco when the stock market crashed in 1929. As her business diminished with the Depression, she began photographing the world around her, including labor strikes and protests. Then married to renowned California landscape painter Maynard Dixon, Lange became increasingly politicized.
She found work with a series of relief organizations, most significantly the Resettlement Agency, later called the Farm Security Administration. On one of her early government jobs she met the economist Paul Taylor, whom she would later marry and with whom she would collaborate on several projects, including the book An American Exodus. Her 1936 photograph Migrant Mother has become an icon of the Depression era, embodying the human toll exacted during those bleak years.
Why Lange portrayed the nation’s most vulnerable citizens
During the Depression, the government’s Farm Security Administration hired a number of talented photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, to photograph in rural areas throughout America. Their assignment: to bring to the eyes and ears of Washington legislators—and the nation — evidence of the desperate conditions of subsistence farmers and migrant laborers around the country. Lange is best known for her focus on the Okies, who, displaced by dust storms from their farms in Oklahoma, sought work in California’s Central and Imperial valleys.
Her images are always informed by her genuine sympathy and respect for the people she encountered. Here’s Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips:
The important aspect of Lange’s work is her deep humanitarian feeling toward those people who are perhaps on the fringes of society who have been somehow cast adrift, people who we don’t normally see. She was, after all, interested in the whole changeover from our society in the thirties, from essentially a rural to an urban industrial society. That’s—her humanitarian instinct is to say stop, wait, let’s look at this before it passes.
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