10 Things you didn't know about Dorothea Lange

Ten fascinating facts about the seminal documentary photographer's life and work

Dorothea Lange was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. A documentary photographer of unparalleled vigour and resilience, she's the author of such iconic images as Migrant Mother and White Angel Breadline. Working in urban and rural contexts across America and beyond, Lange focused her lens on human suffering and hardship to create compassionate and piercing portraits of people and places in the hope of effecting or influencing social and political reform. 


White Angel Breadline
, San Francisco, 1933 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California 

To celebrate the Barbican Art Gallery's upcoming exhibition of this seminal photographer's work, we caught up with Assistant Curator, Jilke Golbach, to learn more about Lange's life and work. 

 

1. She suffered from Polio as a child

At the age of seven, Dorothea Lange suffered from polio which left her with a permanently disfigured right leg and foot. For the rest of her life, she walked with a slight limp, a disability that makes her achievements as a documentary photographer travelling across the country and lugging around heavy camera equipment all the more remarkable.

 

2. She had a successful portrait studio

Lange did not start her career as a documentary photographer until the age of 40. Until 1935, she ran her own portrait studio in downtown San Francisco, a hugely successful business where she photographed the bourgeois and bohemian elite of the Bay Area. She later said: "I had the cream of the trade. I was the person to whom you went if you could afford it."

The studio was "a kind of clubbish place," right at the heart of San Francisco’s creative scene, where friends, acquaintances and customers gathered after hours, including figures as Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, and Ansel Adams.

 

3. She was the first woman…

… to be hired as a photographer by the Resettlement Administration (later Farm Security Administration) in 1935, to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941, and to be offered a one-person retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, following in the footsteps of Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

About the difference between the role of men and women as artists, Lange said: "There is a sharp difference, a gulf. The woman’s position is immeasurably more complicated. There are not very many first-class woman producers, not many. That is, producers of outside things. They produce in other ways. Where they can do both, it’s a conflict."

 

4. Her most famous photograph was the cause of a dispute between her and her boss Roy Stryker


Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

The Migrant Mother, Lange’s single most iconic photograph, caused a falling out between Lange and chief of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic project Roy Stryker when she retouched the negative sometime around 1939. Lange had requested the return of the negative from the FSA archive before removing Florence Owens Thompson’s thumb clasping the tent pole in the bottom-right corner of the image while preparing the print for accession by MoMA in 1940.

On discovering this, Roy Stryker was furious: any suggestion that an image in the FSA archive was staged or constructed could be used as ammunition against the project and was viewed by Stryker as a threat to the project’s survival. It's not known why Lange felt compelled to erase Thompson’s thumb, which in subsequent reproductions appears as a ghostly presence. Very few prints of the Migrant Mother showing the original image with the thumb are known to have survived.
 

5. Her photographs influenced John Steinbeck


John Steinbeck. Image via biography.com

John Steinbeck was deeply affected by Lange’s photographs of the migrants of the Great Depression when completing his seminal novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Lange and Steinbeck had both visited the government’s migrant labour camp at Arvin in Kern County in the mid-1930s, and came away with the firm belief that redirecting federal funds towards the provision of improved camp facilities would go a long way to resolving the migrant problem. Tom Collins, the camp manager, features in several of Lange’s photographs and formed the inspiration for the character of Jim Rawley in Steinbeck’s novel.

FSA film director Pare Lorentz said about Lange and Steinbeck in 1941: "Lange, with her still pictures that have been reproduced in thousands of newspapers, and in magazines and Sunday supplements, and Steinbeck, with two novels, a play, and a motion picture, have done more for these tragic nomads than all the politicians of the country."

 

6. Lange and Ansel Adams were close friends


Ansel Adams. Image via californiamuseum.org

Dorothea Lange and fellow photographer Ansel Adams had a lifelong friendship that started when the two first met in San Francisco in the 1920s, collaborating on photographic projects on several occasions. When Lange was photographing in the Deep South between 1936 and 1938, she would regularly send her negatives to Adams in Yosemite for development, worried that her film would be damaged by humidity otherwise.

In 1944, Adams and Lange worked together on a photo series in the wartime shipyards of Richmond, California, on assignment from Fortune magazine, and in 1953 they produced a photo-essay on three Mormon towns in Utah together for LIFE magazine.

 

7. She assisted Edward Steichen on famous The Family of Man exhibition

In 1953, Lange worked closely with Edward Steichen on the preparation of the exhibition and publication The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the purpose of which was to illustrate "the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world" in a symbolic effort to counter McCarthyism, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Together with other collaborators, among them Homer Page and Wayne Miller, they selected 500 photographs out of a total of 2.5 million from 68 countries.

In Lange’s words, "it was a dredging process. It was digging in to get them, not making a big public call for them. They had to be found. Many of the pictures in that show I had a hand in collecting … I just found them, and got them."

 

8. She was an environmentalist campaigner

Lange became deeply concerned with the "price of progress" and the loss of natural landscape when the 1950s ushered in a sharp rise in population numbers in California, a move towards urbanisation and a growing culture of consumerism. In the late 1950s, she documented the destruction of the Berryessa Valley north of San Francisco as part of a large-scale damming project that was to create a water reservoir for the growing population of the Bay Area.

A rallying cry for the preservation of California’s natural landscape and traditional ways of living, the project on which she collaborated with fellow photographer Pirkle Jones was published in a special issue of Aperture (the photography magazine co-founded by Lange) in 1960 but remains one of her most unknown and unseen projects to date.

 

9. She made a photo series in Ireland

Inspired by a book titled The Irish Countryman (1937) by the eminent Harvard anthropologist Conrad M Arensberg, Lange persuaded the editors of LIFE to commission her and her son Daniel Dixon, a writer, to create an in-depth study of rural life in Ireland in 1954. The trip was her first overseas, and she spent six weeks photographing the experience of life around County Clare in western Ireland. Drawn to tight-knit rural communities, Lange travelled around the countryside from Tubber to Ennis, capturing country markets and fairs, pubs, local shops, and church-goers attending Sunday mass in stark and evocative photographs.

 

10. Lange was working on two unfinished projects at the time of her death

Towards the end of her life, Lange attempted to set up a new independent social documentary unit, modelled on the FSA’s photographic project, to commission a new generation of photographers to record urban life in America. While still advocating so-called Project One, she was already making plans for Project Two: the establishment of a national photography centre to be incorporated in the Kennedy Library in Boston.

According to Lange, "a Photography Center can serve integrated efforts to explore the place of photography in visual communication. It can offer a training ground for students of the visual. It can afford opportunity for people to learn—to see. The camera is a unique instrument for teaching people to see—with or without the camera."

Unfortunately, neither of these projects materialised when Lange died a premature death in 1965.

 

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing will be on display at Barbican Art Gallery June 22–September 2, 2018.

Also on display is Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds. One ticket gains entry to both exhibitions and can be booked here.