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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Dorothea Lange, Photo Documentarian

The Migrant Mother (1936)

They say a picture paints a thousand words. We can see why here. Who in America doesn't recall seeing this image at some time in their life?

The Migrant Mother stands out as one of the most famous pictures of the 20th century. Taken in Nipomo, California in 1936 during the Great Depression, this photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, a worker at a pea-pickers camp, captures the depth of despair and uncertainty brought on by poverty during one of America's most difficult periods in history. The image tells Thompson’s story—any woman’s story—in a way words could never describe. We see her. We feel her. Such is the power of a single image.

When Dorothea Lange snapped this photograph, she had just started working for the Farm and Security Administration, formed by the U.S. government to bring attention and aid to farm families devastated by the Depression.

Dorothea Lange

Lange went on to take thousands of other memorable photographs during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration, and World War II, including America’s internment of people of Japanese descent. Through the lens of her Graflex camera, she captured people's emotions.

Her camera probably looked something like this:

Graflex Camera

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Bohemians

I ran across Dorothea Lange recently in The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik, a historical novel that features the story of Lange’s start as a photographer.

The Bohemians is as much an homage to San Francisco during the Roaring Twenties as it is to Lange. Darznik describes the city in vivid detail. I could almost hear gramophones playing in the shadows as she describes gated houses on the hill set behind lush gardens overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Writing from Lange's point of view, Darznik illuminates the hidden nooks and crannies America’s bohemian culture occupied in San Francisco. Reading, I wanted to book a flight and walk its streets. In the early pages, Dorothea says:

“What had struck me most about San Francisco so far wasn’t the newness of the place—that I’d expected—but the absence of the past. I saw now that whatever the city had once been wasn’t completely gone. Stepping into Coppa’s that first time, I had the sensation—and I never lost it, not in all the time that followed—that I’d plunged into the last century. If I just squinted, a woman in a bustle and a bonnet could easily slip into the picture.”

Imagine San Francisco in the spring of 1918. World War I is raging in Europe. By now, America has joined the Allied Powers. Dorothea is twenty-two and plans to see the world. First stop: San Francisco. With $240 in her pocket, her entire life savings, and her Graflex camera, she steps off the train in Oakland. While ferrying to San Francisco, a thief picks her pocket, making off with her money. Alone and penniless, Dorothea is forced to hock her camera, the one item she intended to use to make a living.

Fortunately, Dorothea meets people who are willing to help. In The Bohemians, it is one Caroline Lee, a young Asian-American woman. Lee is a fictional character, a beautiful, flamboyant, stylish woman—everything Dorothea is not. Seeing they are both different, they are drawn to each other. Caroline is half Chinese, half white and is rejected by both cultures; Dorothea is crippled by polio and walks with a limp.

Caroline introduces Dorothea to San Francisco’s bohemians—artists and photographers and writers—and Dorothea decides to stay in San Francisco. She finds a job at a five-and-dime store and earns enough money to buy her camera back. With her most prized possession finally in hand, she opens her own studio as a portrait photographer.

The Bohemians covers Dorothea’s life from when she was twenty-two to approximately 1937, so it is not a full biographical novel. Instead, it focuses on her early work when she establishes her signature style. As the story unfurls, we meet a cast of colorful characters—a veritable who's who of the era, many of them her real-life contemporaries, including people like famed nature photographer Ansel Adams.

So who was the real Dorothea Lange?

Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895. At seven she contracted polio and was left with a disfigured right leg and foot. At twelve, her father abandoned her family. Yet she possessed a certain stamina, a single-minded determination that had already set her apart. She attended Columbia University Teacher’s College where she apprenticed with American’s foremost photographer at the time, Arnold Genthe, in Manhattan.

Dorothea yearned to see the world. Intending to travel the globe and sell her photographs along the way to fund her excursion, she and a friend set out on their journey. The two only got as far as San Francisco, where all of Dorothea's money really was stolen.

Not to be dissuaded, Dorothea found a job at a store that sold photographic equipment, and it was here she met a businessman who helped fund her own studio. At about this time, she changed her last name to Lange, her mother’s maiden name. Because she was good at what she did, Dorothea managed to attract an elite clientele and did sufficiently well financially.

In San Francisco she also found a home among the bohemians culture before and while working successfully as a portrait photographer. During this period, she met artist Maynard Dixon, a well-known, prolific illustrator and landscape painter. Currently, Dixon is best remembered for his paintings of the American West. When he met Dorothea, he was still experimenting with styles, though by then, his art had already gained him a solid following. The two married in 1920 and had two sons.

When the Depression hit, like all Americans, artists were also harshly affected. Dixon and Dorothea set up separately in smaller studios to save money. He turned to painting social realism; she turned to what was happening outside the window of her studio on Montgomery Street. On a daily basis, she observed the ravages of the Depression—people lining the streets looking for food, jobs, and shelter. She started walking among them, taking pictures.

Her sympathetic eye for those most forgotten by society quickly distinguished her from other photographers. Said her friend and fellow photographer Willard Van Dyke:

“[Her] real interest is in human beings and her urge to photograph is aroused only when human values are concerned. Unlike the newspaper reporter, she has no news or editorial policies to direct her movements; it is only her deeply personal sympathies for the unfortunates, the downtrodden, the misfits, among her contemporaries that provide the impetus for her expedition.”[1]

White Angel Breadline

We see evidence of Van Dyke's observation of Dorothea and her approach in one of her earliest photographs, White Angel Breadline, which gained her recognition from the public and her peers. Taken in 1933, the image shows men at a soup kitchen run by a woman nicknamed White Angel near Dorothea's studio.

Almost overnight, Dorothea went from being a portrait photographer to a photo documentarian. She held her first exhibition in 1934. Paul Schuster Taylor, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Berkeley, attended and later asked permission to use one of her photographs for a paper he was writing. Taylor had dedicated himself to improving the lives of rural people. The two formed a friendship and a professional relationship that would change her life forever. Together, they documented workers coming to California to find employment in agriculture, blending text and imagery.

Theirs appears to have been an instant attraction, one that surely involved sharing the same compassion for the people whose stories they were committed to telling. Dorothea divorced Dixon and she and Taylor (who also left his wife to be with Lange) married in 1935.

Dorothea’s recognition for her photographs led to the commission in which the Farm Security Administration hired her to photograph migrant farm workers in 1935. In 1939 she published a collection of photos in a book which she authored with Taylor.

Lange and Taylor working together in the field

As the old saying goes, be careful what you want, for you shall surely get it. In time, Dorothea’s photography eventually took her around the world when she and her husband traveled to different places in America as well as to South Asia, the Middle East, and South America documenting rural and city life.

An Early Influencer

I think of Dorothea Lange as an influencer, her photographs an early form of social media that rallied public sentiment for people in dire need. As a body of work, the images she captured helped shape policy and social reform. Of her Ansel Adams said:

“To my mind she represents the almost perfect balance of artist and human being…If any documents of this turbulent age are to endure, the photographs of Dorothea Lange will, most certainly.”[2]

How right he was. Dorothea Lange also was a role model for women by breaking down barriers that otherwise kept women from aspiring to nontraditional careers. She rocketed to success in a male-dominated field. And she didn’t let her disability keep her from pursuing her passion. Despite it, she went wherever her passions led.

Dorothea struggled with various health issues for the last twenty years of her life but continued taking photographs, always using her medium for public good, until her untimely death. She passed away from esophageal cancer at age seventy in 1965 in San Francisco.

The Bohemians is definitely a read for you if you want to know more about Dorothea Lange, if you love the Roaring Twenties, if you love San Francisco and the bohemian culture that evolved during that time, or if you're a photography buff. Even if you aren’t into any of those things, it’s a story of a woman finding her purpose and pursing it with unrivaled zeal, something we can all appreciate.

If you’d like to know more about Lange’s biography, check out this Getty link or view some of her most memorable photos at this online exhibit compiled by the Smithsonian Magazine. For how her work remains timeless, you might enjoy reading this moving article from the Museum of Modern art in New York.

Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.

Biography sources for this post:

More photos by Dorothea Lange:

Footnotes: [1] Cited in: Dorothea Lange’s 5 Most Iconic Images, by Alexxa Gotthardt, Art, January 6, 2020. Retrieved from [2] Source:


Daryl Byklum
Daryl Byklum
Jan 09, 2023

What a great artist to highlight! The Migrant Mother has long been one of my favorite photographs. Kudos to Lange and her work. (and to those who promote the work of unsung heroes.)

Jan 09, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for reading! Lange really was a fascinating woman. I enjoyed researching her. When you think about her impact on the American consciousness during this period, her influence can't be underestimated.

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