Photography Masters - Dorothea Lange
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Dorothea Lange

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Seven years after she was born, in 1895 at New Jersey, Dorothea Nutzhorn, contracted polio which was to torment her psyche all her life; so much so that her right leg with a limp, made her remark, ‘It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me…I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it’. But despite this trauma, Dorothea, who died at 70 in 1965, is considered as one of the most eminent American documentary photographer, whose portraits of displaced farmers during the Great Depression greatly influenced later day journalistic and documentary photography.

Around the time she reached her teens, her parents had divorced, for which she blamed her father; so much so, that she dropped his surname and took her mother’s maiden name Lange -- and became Dorothea Lange.

Child living in Oklahoma City, Shacktown, 1936. The young girl in rags covered with dirt standing against a shack is an example of how a simple composition creates a powerful image by using a striking subject to communicate the story.

At 18 she decided to become a professional photographer, working at the studio of Arnold Genthe and later studied at the Clarence H White School. Later between 1919 and 1940 she opened a portrait studio in San Francisco. During the course of her work she started travelling the depression- afflicted streets of San Francisco, and her photographs caught the attention of an economist at Berkeley, Paul Taylor; subsequently they married and co-created the book, An American Exodus. She worked and travelled extensively for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), during which period she produced some of her best works.

But the photograph of Lange which is considered iconic was her picture that has become famous as Migrant Mother—which is one of a series of photographs that Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in 1936 in California. Lange was concluding a month's trip photographing migratory farm labour around the state. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience in Popular Photography: ‘I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that 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. There was a sort of equality about it’.

Migrant Mother, 1936. One of Lange’s most iconic images which signified the Great Depression. This photo again uses a powerful subject (the mother) looking away from the camera in deep thought. Her kids hide behind her creating a juxtaposition in the photo.

In 1941, Lange was the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. A few years later she worked for the American government, photographing such subjects such as the Japanese-American internment camps and the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. This was followed by a long freelance stint in LIFE magazine travelling to Asia, South America, and the Middle East. Notably in 1942, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, she recorded the evacuation of Japanese Americans to detention camps. That work was celebrated in 2006 with the publication of Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. It is reported that her images were so forceful and critical of the situation, the Army impounded, and were not seen by anyone including Lange for twenty years.

The Dust Bowl, 1938. The emaciated girl is standing on a truck which shows signs of wear and tear while the distant horizon shows an empty field thereby emphasizing her state of being.

In an interview before her death in 1965, she summarized the essence of her photograph as an ‘act of love’. ‘’That’s the deepest thing behind it’, she reflected. ‘The audience, the recipient of it, gives it back’.


Siddharth Kumar, is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.