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Artists Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange Photo

Dorothea Lange

American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Straight Photography, Documentary Photography

Born: May 26, 1895 - Hoboken, New Jersey

Died: October 11, 1965 - San Francisco, California

Dorothea Lange Timeline


"It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque."
Dorothea Lange
"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."
Dorothea Lange
"I believe in living with the camera, and not using the camera."
Dorothea Lange
"Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still."
Dorothea Lange
"I feel myself more like a cipher, a person that can be used for lots of things and I like that. But I don't feel that I personally stand for anything so great, you know. That is the way in which I kind of slid into this. You asked me about deciding to be a photographer, but over everything, I think, all my decisions right along, even working in the field when I was doing documentary work, have been instinctive; and I trust my instincts. I don't distrust them. They haven't led me astray. It's when I've made up my mind to be efficient that is when I have gone wrong."
Dorothea Lange

"Bring the viewer to your side, include him in your thought. He is not a bystander. You have the power to increase his perceptions and conceptions."


Dorothea Lange's images of Depression-era America made her one of the most acclaimed documentary photographers of the 20th century. She is remembered above all for revealing the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farmers and migrant workers in the 1930s, and her portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California(1936), has become an icon of the period. Since much of this work was carried out for a government body, the Farm Security Administration, it has been an unusual test case of American art being commissioned explicitly to drive government policy. After the Depression she went on to enjoy an illustrious career in photo-journalism during its hey-day, working for leading magazines such as Fortune and Life, and traveling widely throughout Asia, Latin America, and Egypt. She was instrumental in assembling the "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959, a renowned celebration of struggling post-war humanity.

Key Ideas

Many of Lange's documentary photographs borrow techniques from the lexicon of modernism - dramatic angles and dynamic compositions - to produce startling and often jarring images of her subjects. They never overpower the subjects themselves, but instead subtly direct the viewer to a fresh appreciation of the individual's plight.
Lange's mature work proved that works of art and documents are not mutually exclusive, and that they can combine to produce beautiful, moving, and campaigning images. Her use of innovative techniques also proved that modernist art need not only convey the private feelings of the artist, but could also be put in the services of popular journalism.
Lange's work, not only in the Depression but also in the post-war years, is characteristic of a lost age when a broad swath of the mass media was profoundly concerned with social issues. She saw herself firstly as a journalist and secondly as an artist, and she worked with a burning desire to effect social change by informing the public of suffering far away.


Dorothea Lange Photo


Dorothea Lange grew up in a middle-class family in New Jersey. Her father, Heinrich Nutzhorn, worked as a lawyer, but also held several respected positions in local businesses, politics and the church, while her mother Johanna managed the household. Both parents were proponents of education and culture, and exposed both Dorothea and her brother Martin to literature and the creative arts.

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Dorothea Lange Biography Continues

Important Art by Dorothea Lange

The below artworks are the most important by Dorothea Lange - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The White Angel Breadline (1933)

The White Angel Breadline (1933)

Artwork description & Analysis: One of Lange's better-known photographs, she often cited this particular scene when speaking about her breakthrough into documentary photography. "The discrepancy between what I was working on in the printing frames and what was going on in the streets was more than I could assimilate". Drawn to the lines of people waiting for worker's compensation or food relief, the image of this elderly man waiting for food at the soup kitchen embodies the depressed mood of the times. The camera focuses on the man's hat and face, which show an exploration of texture through comparison of the rough material and wrinkles of the hat, as well as his weathered skin; her unconventional use of the fence in the foreground to lend dynamism to the scene is also characteristic of use of modernist techniques.

- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Henry Swift Collection

Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California (1936)

Ditched, Stalled and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this picture, Lange is able to capture a striking look of anxiety on the face of her subject. Stranded in his car, the man's plight suggests the larger problems that society faced during the Great Depression. To add to the feeling of claustrophobia, Lange purposely cropped the photograph into a tighter composition, which originally included a woman sitting in the passenger's seat. Rather than suggesting he pose, Lange has caught him as if unawares, an effect which persuades us all the more of the truth of the image.

- The Dorothea Lange Collection, The Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: Probably the most famous of Lange's photographs, the description she wrote of her encounter with Florence Owens Thompson reveals that it left a deep impression on her. "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tyres from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me... I knew that I had recorded the essence of my assignment." The indescribably poignant expression on Thompson's face stands out from between the bowed heads of her sons, whose presence reveals the nature of her concerns.

- San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library

More Dorothea Lange Artwork and Analysis:

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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Dorothea Lange
Interactive chart with Dorothea Lange's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Horace BristolHorace Bristol
Maynard DixonMaynard Dixon
Lewis HineLewis Hine
Paul StrandPaul Strand
Clarence WhiteClarence White

Personal Contacts

Imogen CunninghamImogen Cunningham
Roy StrykerRoy Stryker


Modern PhotographyModern Photography

Influences on Artist
Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange
Years Worked: 1930-1964
Influenced by Artist


Ansel AdamsAnsel Adams
Horace BristolHorace Bristol
Catherine OpieCatherine Opie

Personal Contacts

Pare LorentzPare Lorentz
John SteinbeckJohn Steinbeck
Roy StrykerRoy Stryker


Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography

Useful Resources on Dorothea Lange






The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits Recomended resource

By Linda Gordon

Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange

By Elizabeth Partridge

Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life

By Milton Meltzer, Dorthea Lange

More Interesting Books about Dorothea Lange
A Friendship of Differences

By William Meyers
The Wall Street Journal
April 29, 2010

Seeing Dignity in Poverty

By Julia Baird
November 5, 2009

Internment Without Charges: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment

By Linda Gordon
Japan Focus
December 4, 2006

Viewfinders Keepers

By Steve Chawkin
Los Angeles Times
May 31, 2004


Oral history interview with Dorothea Lange

Conducted by Richard K. Doud
May 22, 1964

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