The Enduring Influence
of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange. Crossroads General Store, Gordonton, North Carolina, 1939. Archival pigment print.

© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor
Dorothea Lange. Crossroads General Store, Gordonton, North Carolina, 1939. Archival pigment print.
The photographer behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Dorthea Lange’s photos remain as powerful and relevant today as they were 80 years ago.

The photographer behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange’s photos remain as powerful and relevant today as they were 80 years ago.

© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Paul S. Taylor. Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, ca. 1935. Archival pigment print.

“Often it’s just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust. If you will behave in a generous manner, you’re very apt to receive it.”

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, the early 20th-century American documentary photographer, is forever synonymous with Migrant Mother (1936)–her iconic photograph of an impoverished modern-day Madonna caring for three children. “As you look at the photograph of the migrant mother, you may well say to yourself, ‘How many times have I seen this one?’” Lange herself wrote of the popular image, over two decades after she produced it for the United States government’s Farm Security Administration. “It is used and published over and over, all around the world, year after year, somewhat to my embarrassment, for I am not a ‘one-picture photographer.’”

Lange left nearly 40,000 negatives and 6,000 prints in the personal archive she bequeathed to the Oakland Museum of California in 1966, and was certainly more than a one-trick pony. She photographed victims of the Great Depression, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the inequalities of the Jim Crow South, environmental ravages, and the Oakland criminal justice system. And recently, it is these other photographs–and she herself–that have received a burst of attention.

A traveling exhibition of 130 prints, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, began at the Oakland Museum of California in 2017 and includes some never-before-seen photographs. It has since been shown at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, Jeu de Paume in Paris, and will open this month at the Frist Art Museum in Tennessee. A recently released historical fiction novel, Learning to See (Harper Collins, 2019), has also brought Lange into the limelight, flipping the lens on the life of the woman behind the camera.

“I've seen increased interest in Lange,” Drew Heath Johnson, curator of photography and visual culture at the Oakland Museum of California, told Art & Object. “Her photographs are shockingly relevant today, and especially powerful thanks to the profound empathy of her approach.”

Dorothea Lange. May Day Listener, San Francisco, 1934.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. May Day Listener, San Francisco, 1934. Gelatin silver print.

Dorothea Lange. Family on the Road, Oklahoma, 1938. Gelatin silver print.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Family on the Road, Oklahoma, 1938. Gelatin silver print.

Dorothea Lange. Untitled (Oklahoma Mother in California), 1937.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Untitled (Oklahoma Mother in California), 1937. Archival pigment print. 

Dorothea Lange. Crossroads General Store, Gordonton, North Carolina, 1939.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Crossroads General Store, Gordonton, North Carolina, 1939. Archival pigment print. 

Dorothea Lange. Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama, 1938.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama, 1938. Gelatin silver print. 

Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936.
The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936. Gelatin silver print.

Dorothea Lange. One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco, 1942.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. One Nation Indivisible, San Francisco, 1942. Gelatin silver print.

Dorothea Lange, Residents Awaiting Evacuation, Oakland, California.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Residents Awaiting Evacuation, Oakland, California. 1942

Dorothea Lange. Young Man at Manzanar Relocation Center.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Young Man at Manzanar Relocation Center.

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, 1942.
Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, 1942. Gelatin silver print.

Dorothea Lange. Shipyard Worker, ca. 1943.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Shipyard Worker, ca. 1943. Gelatin silver print. 

Dorothea Lange. Untitled (Shipyard Worker, MacDonald Avenue, Richmond), ca. 1934.
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange. Untitled (Shipyard Worker, MacDonald Avenue, Richmond), ca. 1934. Archival pigment print. 

The California-based Lange first made a name for herself as a portrait photographer, and it was in her studio on San Francisco’s 540 Sutter Street that she perfected a rare ability to connect with her subjects and to translate singular nuance to a black-and-white likeness. When she shifted to commissioned assignments for the government during the Great Depression, photographing the stark living conditions of migrant farm workers to illustrate their dire need of federal aid, she treated her subjects with the same dignity as she had her wealthy cosmopolitan patrons.

“What set Lange apart was her background as a studio portrait photographer, which drove her to recognize her subjects' individuality as well as capturing their immediate circumstances,” Johnson added. “They are not simply representatives of larger social issues, but recognizable individuals with whom we can all identify. Rather than sneak candid photos, she spent time with her subjects, speaking with them and in effect collaborating with them on each photograph.”

There is a sense of humility in Lange’s snapshots of American life in its infinite greyscales. She kept herself on equal footing with her subjects, and often spent significant time talking to and building a rapport with strangers before ever lifting her 4x5 Graflex camera. “Often it’s just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust,” Lange said. “If you will behave in a generous manner, you’re very apt to receive it.”

Lange treated her subjects with respect and in turn they allowed her into their makeshift camps and let her photograph their sparse meals and basic living conditions, producing some of the most honest and descriptive images of American 20th-century history. In addition to giving a political situation a face, she also granted her subjects a voice by jotting down parts of their conversations and advocating that these snippets be used as captions, or incorporated into the governmental reports her photographs would ultimately illustrate. “Words that come direct from the people are the greatest,” she humbly noted. Lange waited to learn the story from the people living it, instead of composing illustrations that matched a preconceived idea of a situation. Lange recorded things that others might have ignored, like where people lived, how much they earned, and the names and ages of their children.

Her human approach to photography has made her images timeless, and is part of the reason they still resonate today. Also, many of the challenging conditions Lange photographed mirror the contemporary political climate. “Lange’s work is particularly appropriate for revisiting because so many of the subjects she addresses relate to current events even though most photos were taken over seventy years ago,” Katie Delmez, curator at the Frist Art Museum, expressed to Art & Object. “The persistence of poverty, the treatment of immigrants, government assistance, racism, environmental degradation, cracks in our judicial system are all major issues in today’s turbulent environment.”

Migrant Mother, then, is far more than just a fleeting image of 32-year old Florence Owens Thompson (whose age and name we know thanks to Lange’s meticulous notes), living on a pea-picking camp of 2,500 destitute workers. She’s a universal symbol of endurance in the face of hardship. “[Migrant Mother] has, in a sense, lived a life of its own through these years,” Lange wrote of the photograph. “It goes on and on.”

The relevance of her other photographs goes on and on, too, and as Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing reaches new audiences, viewers are sure to identify long-gone individuals from across America whose stories still inform our present day.

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

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