As a member of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic unit under Roy Stryker, Dorothea Lange photographed migrant workers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and other victims of the Depression in 22 states, primarily in the South and West, between 1935 and 1942. Her "Migrant Mother" (1936) is one of the classic images of the period.
Lange was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, of German descent. As a young girl she was stricken with polio, which left her with a lifelong limp which she believed heightened her sensitivity to the sufferings of others. She attended grade school in New York City's Lower East Side and the Training School for Teachers also in New York.
In 1914 Lange visited the Fifth Avenue portrait studio of Arnold Genthe; he gave her her first camera and encouraged her photographic work during the next year. In 1917-1918 Lange studied at Columbia University with the pictorial photographer Clarence White. Later in 1918 she became employed as a photofinisher in San Francisco, where she worked as a freelance photographer and operated her own studio from 1919 to 1940, at which time she established a studio in Berkeley, California. In 1932, after a decade as a studio portraitist, Lange began to photograph people in their social contexts on the streets of San Francisco. She was the subject of an Oakland, California, exhibition. In 1934 a critical article about Lange written by Willard Van Dyke appeared in Camera Craft.
With Paul Taylor (whom she later married) Lange began work for the California Rural Rehabilitation Administration in 1935. The example set by their efforts was partly responsible for the creation of the photographic unit of the Federal Resettlement Administration later that year. Lange photographed with the RA/FSA from 1935 to 1942. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941 for "photographic study of the American social scene," a project she was prevented from completing by the United States' entry into World War II Lange worked for the U.S. War Relocation Agency in San Francisco in 1942, and for the Office of War Information, San Francisco, from 1943 to 1945. Many of her photographs from this time were lost in transit.
Poor health forced Lange to remain inactive for several years until 1950-1951 when she conducted seminars and participated in photographic conferences. In 1954-1955 she was a staff photographer with Life magazine. She worked again as a freelance photographer from 1958 to 1965, accompanying her husband on U.S. aid assignments in Asia, South America, and the Middle East. She died of cancer in Marin County, California, in 1965, just before the opening of her major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Lange was placed on the Honor Roll of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1963. She was honored with solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1960), the Museum of Modern Art (1966), the Oakland Art Museum (1960, 1966, 1971, and 1978), and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (1973). Her work has been included in important group shows, including 6 Women Photographers, The Family of Man, and The Bitter Years: FSA Photographers 1935-1941 at the Museum of Modern Art; Photography in the Twentieth Century at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa; and Women of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Her presentation The American Country Woman was the most popular exhibit ever distributed by the U.S. Information Agency. Lange's archive was donated to the Oakland Museum.
Text from The Encyclopedia of Photography (1984)