Photographers You Should Study

Dorothea Lange: Capturing the Human Spirit in Crisis

American Documentary Photographer

Dorothea Lange

Quotes | Videos | Books

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Dorothea Lange – Wikipedia

Dorothea Lange [1895 – 1965] was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Lange studied photography at Columbia University in New York City before moving to San Francisco, where she established a successful portrait studio.

However, her focus shifted during the Great Depression, when she began to document the harsh realities faced by many Americans, capturing the struggles of unemployed and homeless people, migrant workers, and the effects of the Dust Bowl.

Her photograph “Migrant Mother” (1936) is among the most iconic images of the era, symbolizing the suffering and resilience of the period.

Lange’s work significantly contributed to the development of documentary photography, using her camera as a tool to bring attention to social issues and advocate for change.

Read the full Biography below.

Photography Quotes From Dorothea Lange

"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." -  Dorothea Lange
"Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion…the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate." - Dorothea Lange
"I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck." - Dorothea Lange
📸 Did you know?
Lange suffered from polio at the age of seven, which left her with a lifelong limp. She believed this experience helped her to develop a sense of empathy that would later define her photographic work.

Videos about Dorothea Lange

📸 Did you know?
Beyond her work with the FSA, Lange co-founded the photography magazine Aperture in 1952, aiming to connect photographers and audiences through insightful dialogue about photography and its role in the world.

Books by Dorothea Lange

The book, Seeing People by Dorothea Lange
The book, Words and Pictures by Dorothea Lange
The book, Dorothea Lange by Dorothea Lange
Cover of a book titled "Dorothea Lange: Farm Security Administration Photographs Book Two"
📸 Did you know?
Her most famous photograph, “Migrant Mother,” almost didn’t happen. Lange initially drove past the pea pickers’ camp where the photo was taken but felt compelled to turn back, a decision that resulted in one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Biography of Dorothea Lange

Early Life and Education

Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. 

After contracting polio at age seven, Lange was left with a weakened right leg and a lifelong limp, an experience that instilled in her a profound empathy for those facing adversity. 

Following her father’s abandonment of the family, Lange’s surname was changed to her mother’s maiden name, marking the first of many transformations in her life. 

Her interest in photography began in New York City, where she studied at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, among other places.

Early Career

Lange moved to San Francisco in 1918, where she soon established a successful portrait studio. Her business thrived throughout the 1920s, capturing the city’s elite and their families. 

However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 shifted Lange’s focus from studio portraiture to the streets, documenting the social and economic impact of the era.

Depression-Era Work and Farm Security Administration

Lange’s transition to documentary photography culminated in her employment by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1935. 

Her work for the FSA, intended to raise awareness and provide aid to impoverished farmers, includes some of her most iconic images. 

“Migrant Mother,” perhaps Lange’s most famous photograph, epitomizes the despair and resilience of the era, becoming a symbol of the Great Depression.

World War II and Japanese Internment Camps

During World War II, Lange was commissioned by the War Relocation Authority to document the internment of Japanese Americans. 

Her photographs from this period, though sympathetic and stark, were impounded during the war, reflecting the tension between Lange’s humanistic perspective and governmental censorship.

Post-War Career and Legacy

After the war, Lange’s health declined, but she continued to work on various projects, including a photo-essay for Life magazine documenting the Irish countryside and an extensive series on the American judicial system. 

Lange co-founded the photographic magazine Aperture and continued to influence the world of documentary photography until her death from esophageal cancer on October 11, 1965.

Photographic Style and Themes

Lange’s photographic style is noted for its directness, empathy, and ability to capture the dignity of her subjects amidst suffering. 

Her work extends beyond mere documentation, offering a deeply humanistic perspective on the American life and struggles of her time. 

Lange’s legacy as a photographer lies in her nuanced portrayal of individuals and communities affected by the economic and social upheavals of the 20th century.

Influence and Recognitions

Lange’s influence on documentary photography and photojournalism is immeasurable. 

Her approach, characterized by a profound commitment to social justice and the power of photography to effect change, has inspired generations of photographers. 

She received numerous accolades throughout her career, including the first fellowship awarded to a woman by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1941.


Dorothea Lange’s work remains a seminal reference for photographers and historians alike, embodying the capacity of photography to bear witness, provoke change, and touch the human heart. 

Her enduring images of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migrants, and Japanese American internment camps have become icons of American history, testifying to her extraordinary vision and compassion. 

Through her lens, Lange captured the resilience and dignity of those living in the margins of society, making visible the unseen and giving voice to the voiceless. 

Her legacy continues to inspire a commitment to using photography as a tool for empathy and advocacy.

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