Skip directly to content

A Photographer of Democracy

A Yale University alumni with a PhD in History, Gordon's A Life Beyond Limits easily won the 2010 Bancroft prize for best book in US history. This is because of Gordon's meticulous attention to detail, and her outlining the purpose of her biography as, “highlighting the most significant [aspects] and not keeping detail which impedes the main point.”1 Gordon's main point of the book is to detail how Dorothea Lange, an otherwise ordinary woman, had transcended all expectations of herself, and expectations of human ability.

She is arguably the most influential photographer in American history. She is Dorthea Lange, and her life is the subject of Linda Gordon's award-winning biography. Born between the Victorian and Modern eras, Lange's world view differed from traditional views of the time. Lange “abhorred the sentimental,”2 and rather than portraying the ideal, she depicted reality for how things truly were. Dorothea Lange sought to change the nation's view of the world, reveal the truth about life during a depression, and create deep, thought-provoking images of a nation in distress.

Born from second-generation German immigrants in New Jersey, Lange's full name was Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn. She contracted polio at the age of seven, which crippled her right foot and gave her a limp she would have for the rest of her life. Lange commented much later in life that her impediment left her, “imprisoned in her imperfect body.”3 After her father abandoned she and her mother at twelve, Dorothea dropped her father's extension Nutzhorn and assumed her mother's maiden name Lange. Her mother was now the sole provider of the family and was forced to downsize to a smaller home in south Manhattan. Lange said she felt distant from her fellow classmates, and had no interest in any social groups. In retrospect, Lange admits she very much despised her adolescence, but they had a tremendous impact on her psyche that would ultimately create the legendary photographer we know today. Her isolation made her an individual with a profound view of society and inner strength. After this developed in her mind for years, a young Lange at the age of eighteen felt compelled to be a photographer in order to visually represent her innermost beliefs. She was educated in photography at Columbia University and apprenticed to several New York studios until 1918 when she moved to San Francisco. The following year she opened her own portrait studio, and with photography being available to the public so easily for the first time, was greatly successful and popular. In 1920 she married painter Maynard Dixon with whom she later had two sons – one in 1925 and the other in 1929. From 1918 until the Great Depression, Lange was nothing more than a quiet, unknown portrait photographer hidden deep within the concrete jungle that is San Francisco. Had Lange continued this modest living, she may never have found her true calling, nor would her images have had such an impact on the nation. While the Great Depression was certainly a giant burden on the world, it boosted Lange's popularity and profoundness. It was after she realized how arduous the times were in this depression that she realized her true calling – documentary photography.

Lange in an interview once said she was able to pinpoint the exact moment in her mind when she came to a revelation about her desire to be a documentary photographer. She was overlooking the San Franciscan streets in the spring of 1932 from her second floor window when she, “saw clearly and for the first time with open eyes, the Depression.”4 For a visual minded person such as Lange, the images she perceived of the Great Depression greatly disturbed her. Images of lines of people stretching for blocks to buy a meek share of food. Images of children in rags begging for food. But what disturbed Lange even more than the conditions of life was the media's perception of the events. Everything from the Roaring Twenties had attached to it a catchy, upbeat title, and this carried on into the thirties. It were as if the media was oblivious to events occurring right in front of their very own eyes. Lange knew that they were choosing not to display the truth, and she was convicted to show it herself. Lange was fortunate enough to still make enough income from her portrait photography until she dropped it completely to pursue documenting the Depression. Due to aging and the stresses of the Depression, Lange's husband Dixon was growing to be an incompetent old man at the age of sixty. Lange sought to expand her photographic career most of all, so in 1935 she ultimately dropped both her hindrance of a husband and her portrait studio to enter a new chapter of her life. For Lange, the Depression was a time of renewal – a renewal of passion, of happiness, and of character. Lange's revival and the time period following would prove to be the prime of her entire life.

In the hot, muggy summer of 1935, Dorothea entered the San Francisco Resettlement Administration office (RA) and applied for a job as a photographer. She had been invited to join by Roy Stryker two months prior, and closed her studio in anticipation. Heading into this new era, Lange felt uncertain about what she was getting herself into, and even less about where she was headed. While working for the Resettlement Administration, she met many photographers, journalists, and politicians including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, and Ben Shahn. It was during this time she also met economist Paul Taylor and was smitten. Each left their spouses to be with one another, and Taylor took Lange across the nation to photograph the Depression from different perspectives. The Resettlement Administration's (RA) contract was set to expire in January 1st of 1937, but it was reborn immediately as the Farm Security Administration (FSA). With an increased federal budget, this time period would prove to be Lange's prime, as she photographed her most acclaimed and popular pictures of the Depression during this era. Even though her work was being published anonymously and released for free in newspapers and fliers across the country, she kept on striving higher with each coming contract. Her images framed the forgotten, depicted the depraved, and yanked the heartstrings of many Americans. Photography was, and still is an extremely deep and profound art medium. Other than a title of the work, each image does not utilize words to express the message the artist wishes to convey. Rather, photography relies on the audience to reflect how they feel inside, and interpret their own message. Lange was an extraordinary photographer because she knew exactly what she wanted to say, and was able to effectively portray this in imagery. The audience was able to pick up on the messages Lange tried to communicate and these thoughts must have coincided with the thoughts of millions, for her images had a profound impact on society. Throughout the rest of her life, Lange, “[attempted] to attain once again the high point of her life that was FSA photography,”5  but was unfortunately never able to reach this elation again. In 1943, the Farm Security Administration's photography committee was disbanded, attacked by conservatives for being too grim amidst the escalating World War II conflicts. Though the war was what deprived her of her glory years, it provided Lange another opportunity to showcase the truth.

Lange had one last great impact on American culture before her death. By Executive Order 9066, Japanese on the Pacific coast were to be interned to holding camps, which Lange brought public awareness to. Her photographs were widely seen and yet again pulled American's hearts in two, but critics at the time were more conservative now than ever, and she received many mixed reviews. This photographing only lasted as long as the war did, and her works being widely shown to the public ceased in 1945, along with the wars end. This, along with the death of her mother marked the end of an era for Dorothea. Given an opportunity by Ansel Adams himself, Lange joined the faculty at the California School of Fine Arts in 1945. She, along with Minor White and Ansel Adams founded the quarterly Aperture magazine in 1952 dedicated to fine art photography. Soon after, in 1956, Lange and Pirkle Jones were assigned to shoot a photographic documentary in Life magazine on the displacement of it's residents in order to build a dam. Life chose not to publish the documentary, but Lange published her works in Aperture, and the Art Institute of Chicago featured her work much later in 1960. It is also around this time when her health began to falter. Her job offerings became less and less frequent, and Lange fell into a depression herself. She retired to stereotypical housewife chores such as cleaning and sewing until she was admitted to the hospital for her recurring stomach ulcers, and diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964. Her last words before her death in October of 1965 were, “I may be in here three weeks yet... It's in scale.”6 She died at the age of seventy, her namesake to be carried on only by two children and numerous grandchildren. But her legacy is immortal. Her images affected a nation during its time of need, and served as a reality check for many Americans during the Depression. Yet it stretches beyond that, as her images continue to remind us how harsh reality can be despite media portrayal – that mankind's existence is all tied together. Lange believes that if one man is suffering and the rest of humanity stands idle, all of man is suffering. If we are true advocates for Democracy, we should be aware of all the atrocities occurring to man.

With America being in another Depression comparable to that of the 1930's (but not nearly as severe), Gordon wanted to draw national attention to a hero. Gordon states that she began to feel an affinity with Lange, “through the concept of 'documentary'... it connotes revealing the truth and promoting social justice.”7 In the midst of an economic depression, Gordon wanted to shine the spotlight on another era's national hero – Lange. She brought attention to the plight of thousands of forgotten Americans dealing with poverty, just as Gordon draws attention to the almost forgotten Lange. She wanted to reveal the social problems of her age, just as Gordon wanted to do as a historian. Despite being two different mediums, both women have essentially accomplished the same goal.

For Gordon, she felt inspired by Lange's entire life story. How one woman, despite her background and hardships, can, “transcend the limits that most women were hindered by at her time.”8 How one woman can overcome the male dominated photography industry, and even become one of its most prominent figures. How her images captivated a nation and brought attention and emotion to the plight of those who are less fortunate. Gordon's writing of this homage to Lange may be linked to America's current economic recession. With times and the economy being at an all time low, America's current situation is comparable to that of the Great Depression. In Gordon's eyes, Lange was a hero of her time. She shined light on the forgotten impoverished citizens of the Depression, she inspired many with her photographs, and she brought introspection to an era defined by materialism. In an effort to call out to new heroes, Gordon may have written this intricate book to inspire others through the amazing, yet normal life of Dorothea Lange.

Gordon's biography elegantly details the troubled childhood, the peak of her life, and the struggle again to, “balance motherhood with her calling.”9 It is widely accepted by readers of A Life Beyond Limits that Lange lived a fascinating life, and had a tremendous impact on American culture at her prime. It is also worthy to note that both articles mention her most famous photograph, Migrant Mother, and describe the back story of the image. When Lange had used the photograph, she deeply upset the woman in the picture since the image did not give her any merit, fame, or income in an extreme time of need. Lange reflects in her biography her extreme sorrow that her pictures could cause such unsettling effects, but stands by her decision as an artist for portraying reality for what it truly is composed of – the good and bad. Despite how her photographs can affect the viewer, she is revered highly by both reviewers - as is Gordon - and the book includes mention of Lange's own depression amidst a time of change. Ultimately, both reviews seem to imply that Gordon's account of Lange's life is a, “testament to Lange's gift for challenging her country to open its eyes.”10

Lange's life and career was certainly interesting and is a recommended read for those with an interest in photography. But Lange has much more appeal than some small-time portrait photographer turned famous. Her images are extremely thought provoking and draw attention to an otherwise unknown part of American history. Gordon does the same thing in her biography, draws attention to an, “otherwise anonymous photographer.”11 Lange photographed with a goal in mind – to inspire Americans to think again, to force Americans to look at what many deemed grotesque and distasteful. When communicated effectively and correctly, the truth is never a cliché, and is sometimes unsettling. Lange was concerned with truth and nothing but the truth, and she only displayed what she felt as real. How her viewers perceived the images she took was ultimately up to them individually, but as a whole, Lange's photographs triggered a new era of Americans – insightful and serious. It's time for America to have another hero like Lange, and Gordon draws attention to the nearly forgotten hero in her meticulous, insightful, and true homage to the irreplaceable, immortal Lange.

Photography was a relatively small medium before Lange stepped onto the scene. Photography was also a relatively new medium, and it had yet to serve much purpose as art. Photography was a portrayal, “of actuality untouched.”12 With the advent of Lange photography came emotion and introspection never before seen. Photography now meant more than capturing a moment in time, it was capable of bringing about emotion, capable of communicating, capable of much more. Lange's photographs were the embodiment of a nation in distress, a depiction of reality that contrasted with how the media prior treated serious events.

Dorothea Lange – A photographer of and for Democracy. Her Legacy persists long after her death, her impact forever made. She used her camera as a means of, “learning how to see without a camera.”13

1. Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits. London, England: W.W. Norton &, 2009. Print. xvx
2. Gordon, Linda. xv
3. Gordon, Linda. 3
4. Gordon, Linda. 104
5. Gordon, Linda. 300
6. Gordon, Linda. 422
7. Gordon, Linda. xvi
8. Gordon, Linda. xx
9. O'Hagan, Sean. "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Dec. 2009. Web.
10. Oshinsky, David. "The New York Times." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2009. Web.
11. Gordon, Linda. xix
12. Gordon, Linda. ii
13. Gordon, Linda. i