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Dorothea Lange Photo

Dorothea Lange

American Photographer

Born: May 26, 1895 - Hoboken, New Jersey
Died: October 11, 1965 - San Francisco, California
"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."
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Dorothea Lange Signature
"It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque."
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"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."
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"I believe in living with the camera, and not using the camera."
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"Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still."
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"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."
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Summary of Dorothea Lange

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.


  • 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.

Biography of Dorothea Lange

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.

Important Art by Dorothea Lange

Progression of Art

The White Angel Breadline

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

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

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


Plantation overseer and his field hands, near Clarksdale, Mississippi

Lange was an ardent activist and felt strongly about racism. In this composition, the white man with his foot resting on the car seems to be proudly showing off his belongings, including the four black men in the background. The positioning of the men so conveniently fits into Lange's social commentary as to be almost comical, echoing what is ridiculous in the very concept of racial discrimination between whites and blacks. This separation is illustrated in the contrast between dark hats and jackets of the workers, and the light clothing of the overseer.

Collection of the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film

Photograph of Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation (1942)

Photograph of Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation

This is a photo of the members of the Mochida family awaiting an evacuation bus. Identification tags are used to aid in keeping the family unit intact during all phases of evacuation. Mochida operated a nursery and five greenhouses on a two-acre site in Eden Township. He raised snapdragons and sweet peas. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry would be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. The solemnity and portrait style of this photograph counteracts the indignity of the Mochida family's pending internment. The tags that hang from their clothing are clearly displayed, echoing those on their luggage and drawing attention to their treatment as less than human. This was among a series of pictures commissioned by the government but which were subsequently impounded when fears arose that they would spark outrage at the treatment of internees.

Oil on canvas - The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


Argument in a Trailer Camp

In her later work, Lange's more interesting portraits are characterized by their psychological depth and intensity. The strained relationship between this couple represents the tension caused by changing gender roles, as women increasingly joined the workforce during the war years. With the woman in the lighted foreground, Lange casts the female into the role of actor, while the man is relegated to the shadows.

Tempura on canvas - The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago

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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Dorothea Lange
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Pare Lorentz
    Pare Lorentz
  • John Steinbeck
    John Steinbeck
  • Roy Stryker
    Roy Stryker
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Dorothea Lange Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Aug 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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