Dorothea Lange The Person And The Artist

Dorothea Lange: The Person And The Artist

When Dorothea Lange was born in 1895 Hoboken, New Jersey there was no way of knowing that she would one day become one of the great American photographers. She was born to second generation German immigrant parents, the first child of Henry and Joanna Nutzhorn.# Her father was a lawyer, her mother a gentle, beautiful women who sang amateur recitals. Two tragedies tested and helped to shape her in her childhood. The first was when she was seven years old and was stricken with polio. Her right leg from the knee down was impaired and as such she was called “ limpy” by the other children and would for the remainder of her life be lame. #This handicap haunted her; she accepted but hated it to the end of her life. At sixty-five she described its significance:

“ No one who hasn’t lived a life of a semi-cripple knows how much that means. I think it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided me. instructed me, helped me. and humiliated me. All those at once. I’ve never gotten over it and I am aware of the force and the power of it.”#

In Dorothea from childhood and through life, there was a constant effort to make a statement to herself and to others that an impaired gait insistently does not mean a lagging, curbed life.#

When Dorothea was twelve a second tragedy occurred in her life: the departure of her father, who walked out, never to return. She never understood why, and could never talk about what happened. It was her independent nature to close doors of past events and deny the influence of certain events and individuals. After the divorce both herself and her mother adopted her mothers maiden name, Lange. # Dorothea kept this secret so well that it was not until after her death that her own husband and children learned her birth name was Nutzhorn. Dorothea’s mother was left with no money and two small children. She set up housekeeping with her mother. She took a job in New York, as a librarian and enrolled her daughter in a nearby public school.# Dorothea and her mother took the ferry everyday into a neighborhood packed with poor people, newly arrived in America. Suddenly Dorothea was exposed to likes of Hester Street, the most densely inhabited few blocks in America, crowded with scenes and endless visual excitement. She became less interested in school and more interested in the city’s ethnic and cultural life. #She started ditching and took to roaming through galleries and museums. She absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of lower-class life in turn-of-the-century New York . And in doing so acquired by instinct the craft of being the observer unobserved. And before she was full-grown she had established the distinct elements of her later working style, an eye that looked hard and remembered. #After graduating despite what amounted to an aversion from classroom, for any formal learning situation, Dorothea enrolled in the New York Training School for Teachers on 119th street. Her attendance was a concession to conformity, to her mother’s and grandmother’s desire for respectability. She was already certain that her life would be spent with a camera. “My mind made itself up,” she later recalled, and could add no more other explanation for the decision than: “It came to me that photography would be a good thing for me to do.” #She was not yet twenty, and she had never owned a camera.

Lange might have shunned the classroom but when she wanted to learn something she was tenacious, aggressive, and persuasive. She talked her way into a series of apprentices, perhaps the most important with Arnold Genthe. Among her other teachers were a succession of “loveable old hacks”, including one wandering tramp who knocked on families doors showing his wares and offering to take the families picture. Only once did she take an academic class at Colombia University. All her various apprentices completed to her satisfaction, Dorothea prepared for the most defiant act of independence of her life. She announced that she intended to travel the world, paying her way as a photographer. #

Dorothea Lange started out as an independent portrait photographer in San Francisco. Bored with studio work, she turned her lens to the breadlines and waterfront strikes on the city’s streets as the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s. Shocked by the number of homeless people in search of work during the Great Depression, she decided to take pictures of people in the street to draw attention to their plight. #

In 1935, Lange joined the Farm Security Administration, where she caught on film the hardships of migrant farm families escaping the dust bowl. #Images such as “Migrant Mother, California,” a portrait of a young widow with her children at a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo, managed to capture not only their subject’s despair, but their dignity as well. Migrant Mother the portrait of a Californian migrant worker with her three children. The face of the young woman is marked by wrinkles, the gaze full of worry directed in the distance. To the right and left the two older children, seeking protection, lean against her shoulders, hiding their faces from the camera, while the small baby has fallen asleep on its mother’s lap. This highly concentrated, tightly composed image has made Dorothea Lange an icon of socially committed photography. Combined with the essays of her husband, labor economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Lange’s photographs offered a persuasive argument for government assis!

During World War II, Lange worked first for the U.S. War Relocation Authority, then the Office of War Information. Her photographs of the forced relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps raised civil rights issues about their treatment and in some cases were censored.# After the war, Lange’s efforts included work as a staff photographer with Life magazine; photo essays on Ireland, Asia, South America and the Middle East; and participation in seminars and conferences. After her death from cancer in 1965, Lange’s husband donated an archive of some 25,000 negatives and 6,000 vintage prints to the Oakland Museum of California.#

Another photograph by Dorothea Lange is White Angel Breadline. Dorothea Lange’s 1932 White Angel Breadline is one of the great photographs in this world. In the midst of the Depression, 14 million people were unemployed. Near Lange’s studio in San Francisco was a breadline set up by a wealthy woman known as the “White Angel.” Looking at this photograph we cannot help but compare 1932 with what is happening now throughout America. Dorothea Lange brings us closer to the feelings of millions of people. As an artist she gave beautiful form to her anger about what people were forced to endure. The situation is painful and cruel: these men are without work and without food. Yet, what they are deprived of by an unjust economic system, Dorothea restores to them: their existence has “an unbounded significance”, a meaning for all time. Dorothea Lange had a great emotion, and her technique is as careful as her emotion is large. The solitary figure in the foreground is clasping his hands, almost as if he were praying, and by those hands is an empty cup. His back is to the other men, yet we feel intensely the particular existence of this man alone with his thoughts, as we are aware that he stands for all those behind him, and so many more. Dorothea Lange carefully isolated the man against a dark background with a warm light on his hands, the simple cup, and his hat. Dorothea Lange shows that respecting every detail makes for great wonder. The folds and creases of their garments have us feel there are real bodies inside them, while we don’t know who these people are. This is very kind. It is a kindness that comes from a beautiful anger — an anger with the coldness and selfishness that make breadlines necessary at all.

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Coles, Robert. Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime. Oakland: Aperture Foundation Inc.,1982

Meltzer, Milto. Dorothea Lange: Life through the Camera. New York; Puffin Books, 1985

Partridge, Elizabeth. Restless Spirit: The life and Works of Dorothea Lange. New York: Viking, 1998