Dorothea Lange




“I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. 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 tires from her car to buy food.” The story surrounding the iconic photograph Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is almost as famous as that of the image itself. Her photographs taken during the Depression of the appalling conditions of rural workers have become synonymous with one of the darkest periods in American history.

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Early Life

Born Dorothea Nutzhorn on 26 May 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Lange had a difficult childhood, contracting polio when she was seven. The illness left her right leg and foot weakened and she walked with a noticeable limp for the rest of her life. Speaking later of the illness, Lange described it as “the most important thing that happened to me, it formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me”. Although her grandparents had emigrated from Germany in the late 1850s, crossing the Atlantic in steerage, the family quickly became established in the growing middle class and her father, Heinrich Nutzhorn, was a lawyer. Lange showed little interest in school but her parents ensured that she was always surrounded by art and literature. When her parents divorced, Lange blamed her father and took her mother’s maiden name which she would use for the rest of her life.

Photographic Career

Lange studied photography at Columbia University under Clarence H. White, a significant member of the Photo-Secession group, and then worked as an apprentice in photography studios in San Francisco. Through the 1920s she travelled around the Southwest with her muralist husband Maynard Dixon. With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange spent her time photographing the labour strikes and poverty of her local San Franciscan neighbourhood. In 1935, at the end of an unhappy marriage, she divorced Dixon and married Paul Schuster Taylor, a university professor and labour economist. Travelling together extensively, Lange would photograph the hardships of the Depression on rural communities on behalf of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), established by the U.S. Agriculture Department, whilst Taylor wrote reports. These images of displaced workers firmly established Lange as a preeminent documentary photographer.

Becoming the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim fellowship in 1940, Lange continued her documentary work through the war, photographing the evacuation of Japanese-American citizens to detention camps after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the inauguration of the United Nations for the Office of War Information. In later life she suffered often from ill health but took on assignments for LIFE magazine, travelling to Utah, Ireland and Death Valley. She died of oesophageal cancer in October 1965. A retrospective exhibition of her photography held at the New York Museum of Modern Art the year after she died described her work as “fundamental to the philosophy of modern documentary”.

Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother'


Giles: This picture here is a very rare variant of one of the most significant photographs of the twentieth century by Dorothea Lange, and it’s often referred to as the Migrant Mother.

Dorothea Lange travelled extensively during the Depression in Southern States of America with her second husband, Paul Taylor, who was a professor and a labour economist. He wrote, and she took photographs, principally for FSA who were the Farm Security Administration, and the FSA had commissioned various artists and photographers to start documenting the impact of the Great Depression on the people in the Southern States.

One day in March, 1936, the two of them were driving home along the Californian coast on Highway 101, when Lange saw a pea pickers’ camp at the town of Nipomo. There were migrant workers there who had set up a camp by the side of the road after two weeks of sleet and heavy rain which had caused a rust blight and destroyed the crop, they had nothing to do and they were sitting about desperate. Lange was drawn in particular to a woman in the camp who had two young children with her. She said, ‘they’d been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children had killed. She had just sold her tyres to buy food.’

The resulting photograph was widely published, and the plight of the mother and her children had the desired emotional effect on the American public. There was huge uproar, so much so in fact that the government began a new aid program to help those affected by the economic and environmental disaster that was happening.

Since then, Lange’s photograph has arguably become the most famous picture from that dark period of American history. On that day, she took five negatives of the family, and our print here is a vintage print from 1936 of one of the alternative frames.