top of page

Dorothea Lange

One of the best documentary photographer in our history

Dorothea Lange was a prestigious American Photographer.

She was born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the same year that Jacob Riis published his famous photographs of the New York’s Lower East Side suburbs. Years later, she would attend primary school in this same neighbourhood. While in high school, she is said to have liked to run away with her best friend to wander the streets of this bustling part of town filled with immigrants who spoke different languages.

When she finished high school, she took some photography subjects at Columbia University but she never completed them. She started working as an apprentice in different photographic studios in New York where she learned the techniques of negative development and photo retouching. With her savings she bought a camera and began to make portraits of her family.

She wanted to travel around the world with her friend Florence. They went to various American cities but when they arrived in San Francisco they had their purse and their few savings stolen. So, they had to start working to survive. Dorothea soon found work in a photo lab and was very successful in retouching portraits that would encourage her to start her own business in 1929. She immediately became successful making portraits of wealthy Jewish families and was able to meet the most famous photographers of the time, such as Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham.

However, two really important events shook her country’s economy and her life forever.

In 1929 the financial crisis of Wall Street occurred, best known as ‘The Great Crash of ’29'. Within a week the value of most of the stock market fell sharply, all people and companies that owned stocks started selling them, and the stock market totally collapsed.

Many companies went bankrupt, unemployment increased 25%, thousands of people lost all their savings, and the few who still kept their jobs saw their wages drop. The situation became so tragic that large queues of jobless workers soon appeared in search of help with eating. It was the beginning of the Great Depression.

Dorothea could see this situation on the streets of San Francisco and wondered what she could do to help. So, she decided to leave her studies, go outside and see firsthand the new reality that surrounded her. She began photographing the long lines of men waiting for someone to give them a piece of bread to eat.

White Angel Bread Line (1)

Men queuing at the entrance to a soup kitchen known as the White Angel Jungle, near their study.

In the middle of the crisis, workers began to organise riots on the street demanding jobs, aid, and better work conditions against a system that had failed them.

Dorothea went with her camera to photograph all of these events.

When she developed her photographs, she put them on the wall of her study to show them to her friends. One of them immediately contacted her with a magazine interested in settlement houses and social welfare problems. The magazine bought one of the labor demonstration photographs and printed it full page.

As if this were not enough, a major environmental crisis added to the economic one. During the 1930’s there was a great drought in the south of the country that affected the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado. It caused incredible dust storms, best known as Dust Bawl. These storms were so strong that they covered the entire agricultural land with meters of sand, also leaving all machinery unusable and forcing two and a half million people to abandon their farms in search of a better life. It was one of the largest migrations in the history of the United States.

On May 11, 1934, one of the worst dust storms in history occurred. A huge cloud of dust two miles high moved from the south of the country to the East Coast, reaching Washington and New York, darkening the day and making monuments such as the Statue of Liberty or the Capitol difficult to see. This stage in American history is also remembered as ‘The Dirty Thirties’. The memory of this event is still present today, since one of the causes of this event was the over-exploitation of soil and the poor land management in the 1920s. In their endeavour to force the production of the soil, the farmers took away the anchoring water-retaining roots of its native grasses. These events laid the groundwork for the severe soil erosion that would cause the Dust Bowl (2).

Photography: Arthur Rothstein, member of the photography team at Farm Security Administration (FSA)

Congress established the Soil Erosion Service, as storms swept across large plains. ‘By 1934, an estimated 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land had been rendered useless for farming, while another 125 million acres -an area roughly three-quarters the size of Texas -was rapidly losing its topsoil’ (3).

The government had to implement new agricultural techniques to combat the problem of soil erosion and carried out a forestry project to plant trees to serve as windbreaks on farms in the Great Plains. Currently this service is called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Photography: Arthur Rothstein

Unable to support themselves on the land, the farmers had to abandon everything, and flee with their families in a mass exodus. Suddenly, the roads were filled with families fleeing from misery, some by car, others just walking. Many of them headed to California to try to work as farm labourers.

Dorothea Lange’s photographs of labour demonstration in San Francisco caught the attention of Paul Taylor, a University of California Agricultural Economist, who was carrying out research on the farmworker problem and needed the visual support of photographs to complete his reports. Dorothea went on several field trips to take notes and photographs what the social scientist and his crew were investigating.

Families who owned cars or trucks slept in their vehicles and these became their new homes.

On the way to Los Angeles. March 1937.

The poster on the right is really ironic in the face of the harsh reality these people has to face.

In 1935 Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Agricultural Security Administration (FSA) commissioned several photographers, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, to document the situation of farm workers during the Great Depression, from 1935 to 1944 (4).

Dorothea, who had already toured southern California, knew that the Imperial Valley was a flash point for labour violence. The wages were so low that they could not meet the needs of families. The documentary ‘Dorothea Lange. An American Odyssey says: ‘Local officials were hostile to the camps fearing such a concentration of workers would lead to violence, unionization, demands for higher wages and even communism. Local sheriffs looked the other way as thugs organised by the growers attacked the camps and beat up and killed suspected agitators. In these brutal assaults women and children also died’ (5).

Woman doing laundry at an Oklahoma Refugee Camp. California

In March 1936, while driving close to a pea pickers camp in Nipomo, California, she stopped her car to have a look. She witnessed the harsh conditions in which these people lived. Here she met Florence Owens Thompson, 32 years old, a mother of seven children. Florence told her that they had to survive by eating the frozen vegetables they found in the field, and the birds their children hunted. Dorothea began taking some pictures of Florence with her children, photographs that would make her famous.

Some days after, ‘two of her photographs would be published in The San Francisco News under the headline ‘Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest workers Live in Squallor’. The photograph that became known as Migrant Mother was published in the paper the following day, on March 11, accompanying the editorial “What does the New Deal mean to this Mother and her Children? The same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the State Relief Administration would deliver food rations to 2,000 itinerant fruit pickers in Nipomo the next day’ (6).

This photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ of Florence Owens Thompson became an icon to represent the suffering and despair of millions of people whose lives changed from one moment to another.

Florence looks outside the frame, worried, with a baby in her arms and surrounded by two other small children, all dirty, hungry, having to survive as best they can.

In the documentary, the voice over comments on Dorothea’s way of work: ‘Laing arrived in a temporary camp for migratory workers set up near Brawley in California’s Imperial Valley. Each family unit had a wooden platform covered by a canvas with no windows, no light or air except for the front and back flaps. She started to asked them how the harvest was, where did they come from, what happens with the children during the day, do they go to school? As she’s talking, the mother appears in the opening with a large family now visible inside. There is more conversation and the father emerges for a photo with his youngest. Soon the entire family is out. The mother and the father had their picture taken. After taking the photos, Lang was sitting in the car and wrote down everything including quotes, writing a caption for each photograph’.

Dorothea’s voice over said: ‘Brawley, California. Imperial Valley. 1939. In a Farm Security Administration migratory labor camp. Family of mother, father and 11 children. Originally from Oklahoma where he had been a tenant farmer. Came to California in 1936 after the drought. Since then, they have been traveling from crop to crop in California, following the harvest. Six of the eleven children attend school wherever the family stops long enough. Five older children work alongside their father and mother…at Sinclair ranch Father had earn about 1.73 dollars for a 10 hour day. His daughter had earn 1.25. With their earns they have to provide their transportation to the fields 20 miles away’.

Pea Harvest. Family working at Nipomo. California 1937.

It has been a long time since these photographs were taken, however, they are still valid today because the world continues to have the same problems: financial and environmental crises that result in a direct impact on people and their massive displacement in search of a better life.

It is important to emphasise the role that documentary photography plays in the register of daily life, and of the problems that we have to face as a society. Since its creation, it has served to show us the beauty of our planet, the different cultures that inhabit it, and to learn through them. But it has also served to display different problems around the world. The work of different photographers throughout history such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Cindy Sherman, Sebastiao Salgado, among others, have served as a way for us to understand these problems and for governmental measures to be taken to change them.

The magnificent work of Dorothea Lange, who left the comfort of her home to see with her own eyes the problems that surrounded her, was essential for the government to apply direct measures to solve the problems faced by workers in the cities and in the countryside. A precise documentary work, close to people, sincere, that shows reality as it is, and that even gives these workers the presence and importance they deserve within society, making portraits with a low point of view, as we see in this last photograph, to magnify them because they are fundamental people in any society. So we see that Dorothea not only portrays them, but also pays homage to them, and gives them the dignity they deserve.


English revision: Rebecca Brown

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page