10 Fascinating Facts About Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange with a large format camera

Jasmin Darznik, author of The Bohemians, a novel of Dorothea Lange’s early career (Ballantine Books, 2021), presents 10 fascinating facts about this trailblazing American documentary photographer of the early 20th century:

Though she is most known for her iconic Depression-era photograph “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange’s photographs put a face to nearly every major historical event of the twentieth century, including World War II and the Japanese American internment camps. 

Her photographs are infused with a deep and abiding dedication to documenting the lives of the have-nots in our country—those banished to the fringes by poverty, hardship, forced migration, and discrimination. She also dedicated herself to documenting environmental degradation, as in her series Death of a Valley.

A California transplant, she died in Berkeley in 1965, months before the first major retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She’s one of the photographers whose work is included in the current Met exhibit “The New Woman Behind the Camera.”

 

Her name wasn’t always Dorothea Lange

She was born Dorothea Nutzhorn, the daughter of first-generation German immigrants, in 1895 and went by that name until she left the East Coast in 1918.

Though she never explained her reasons for taking her mother’s surname, the cross-country move likely afforded her the chance to break free of her painful past, which included her father’s abandonment of the family when she was twelve. Whatever her reasons, once she settled in California, she only ever went by Dorothea Lange.

 

She nearly died of polio as a child

At age seven, Lange contracted polio, which left her with a weakened right foot and permanent limp. Years later she would remark of the experience: “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”

She spent a year confined at home, and when she finally returned to school, she was mocked by the other children and shamed by her own family. Eventually, she trained herself to walk so that her limp was more or less imperceptible. She also wore long skirts and pants to further disguise it.

Lange’s legendary empathy as a photographer grew from this trauma. She had a particular genius for the language of the body and could suggest a whole story from how people held themselves. Her limp also made her vulnerable in ways she drew upon in her work. When walking into a migrant camp during the Depression, for example, she’d sometimes let people see her disability, which helped her establish a connection with them. 

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The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik
The Bohemians (a novel of Dorothea Lange’s early career)
on Bookshop.org* and on Amazon*
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She was a truant

After Lange’s father disappeared, her mother went to work as a librarian, then as a social worker. Since the commute took her to New York, she enrolled her daughter in a school on the Lower East Side. Lange would later speak rapturously of the hours she spent ditching school to roam around the city, looking at all different kinds of people.

During this time, she learned to make herself invisible—to carry herself in a way that attracted the least attention—which allowed her greater freedom of movement. This talent would serve her well later when she became a documentary photographer. She knew how to get lost and how to fall in with strangers and felt these were an essential part of creating good pictures.

 

A thief altered her fate

In 1918, Lange decided to take a trip around the world. She saved up for it for several years, working as a photographer’s assistant in various Manhattan studios. With the US having just entered the war, it was impossible to travel to Europe (the usual destination for a person with an artistic bent), and so she went west intending to travel to Mexico, Hawaii, and the Far East.

Her plans were derailed just as soon as she arrived in San Francisco. A thief stole all her money and she was suddenly stranded in a city where she knew no one. Ever resourceful, she got a job in a five-and-dime shop, where she worked as a photo finisher. A little over a year later, she was running one of the premier portrait studios in San Francisco. California, the place she’d only meant to visit, became the heart of her life’s work—and all on account of a thief.

 

Before documenting the downtrodden, she did portraits of the rich and famous

While Lange’s name is synonymous with documentary photography, she only started on this path after many years as a portrait photographer. In the 1920s, her clients included the wealthiest families in San Francisco—the Levi-Straus family, the de Youngs, and the Hasses.

It may be hard to reconcile this work with her documentary photography, but Lange never regretted the time she spent in the studio. Portrait photography taught her how to work closely with people, how to draw them out, and how to show them not just as they wished to be seen, but how they truly were. She never stopped making portraits; what changed were the subjects.

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Dorothea Lange in the 1930s
Dorothea Lange in the 1930s
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She didn’t consider herself an “Artist”

The reigning figure in photography in Lange’s day, Alfred Stieglitz, advocated for photographs that rose to the level of art. As a single woman from a working-class background, Lange couldn’t indulge such ideals. She kept up with artistic movements and brought an artist’s keen eye to her work, yet she called herself a “tradeswoman” and took true pride in the title.

 

She wasn’t a solitary genius

San Francisco in the 1920s was a fantastically exciting place for women artists. The 1906 Earthquake and Fires had displaced the photography establishment, which wound up creating opportunities for women.

By 1918, the year Lange came to the city, photographers such as Imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman, and Consuelo Kanaga were busy doing phenomenal work there. They were Bohemians, bent on living their lives on their own terms. Lange was able to find friends, colleagues, and mentors. This community emboldened and transformed her.

 

A homeless man pulled her out of the studio and into the street

The Great Depression hit both Lange’s and her painter-husband Maynard Dixon’s businesses hard. It was from the window of her studio on Montgomery Street that she witnessed strikes and the struggles of the unemployed and homeless.

One day she looked up from her work and saw a man who was lost, destitute, and alone. It was a moment of profound reckoning, as she would later reflect: “The discrepancy between what I was working on … and what was going on up the street was more than I could assimilate.”

That was the first time she went into the streets with the aim of taking photographs. Though it took time to dismantle her business, from then on, she knew she had to be part of what was happening in the world.

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Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
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Her iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother,” almost didn’t happen

One day in 1936, Lange was returning home to the Bay Area after a month alone on the road. She’d been separated from her young sons, which was by then a regular occurrence given the nature of her work. She was tired and frazzled and eager to make it home quickly. When she saw a handwritten sign with the words “Pea Pickers Camp,” she drove past it. A few miles on, she suddenly decided to turn around.

“Migrant Mother,” one of the most iconic and most reproduced images in the history of photography, was taken on that day.

 

She was regularly censored for her photographs of people of color

When working for the Farm Securities Administration during the Great Depression, she was expressly told to photograph white Americans as this would engender the most support for New Deal programs. Lange regularly flouted these rules, photographing Asian, Latino, and African Americans, as well as Euro-Americans. These pictures were never included in official government pamphlets, but she continued taking them anyway.

Later, when working for the War Department during WWII, she was forbidden from documenting the Japanese internment camps in any way that suggested they were anything other than organized and dignified. She found creative workarounds, such as photographing the shadow of a barbed-wire fence rather than the fence itself.

Lange also smuggled out her more daring pictures, lending them to the efforts to halt the internment. Eventually she was fired, and all her photographs of the camps were impounded. They only became known to the public seven decades after she took them.

Contributed by Jasmin Darznik. Jasmin’s debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird, was a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice,” a Los Angeles Times bestseller, longlisted for the Center for Fiction Prize, and awarded the Writers’ Center’s First Novel Prize. Darznik is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life.  Her books have been published in seventeen countries.

Jasmin was born in Tehran, Iran, and came to America when she was five years old. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, a JD from the University of California, and a PhD in English from Princeton University. Now a professor of English and creative writing at California College of the Arts, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. To learn more, visit Jasmin Darznik.

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Japanese children pledging allegience at an internment camp - photo by Dorothea Lange, 1942
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More about The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik

In 1918, a young and bright-eyed Dorothea Lange steps off the train in San Francisco, where a disaster kick-starts a new life. Her friendship with Caroline Lee, a vivacious, straight-talking Chinese American with a complicated past, gives Dorothea entrée into Monkey Block, an artists’ colony and the bohemian heart of the city.

Dazzled by Caroline and her friends, Dorothea is catapulted into a heady new world of freedom, art, and politics. She also finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with the brilliant but troubled painter Maynard Dixon. Dorothea and Caroline eventually create a flourishing portrait studio, but a devastating betrayal pushes their friendship to the breaking point and alters the course of their lives.

The Bohemians captures a glittering and gritty 1920s San Francisco, with a cast of unforgettable characters, including cameos from Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, and D. H. Lawrence. A vivid and absorbing portrait of the past, it is also eerily resonant with contemporary themes, as anti-immigration sentiment, corrupt politicians, and a devastating pandemic bring tumult to the city—and the gift of friendship and the possibility of self-invention persist against the ferocious pull of history.

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