Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965) was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street. Her studies of unemployed and homeless people captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
The woman in the photo is Florence Owens Thompson. The original photo featured Florence’s thumb and index finger on the tent pole, but the image was later retouched to hide Florence’s thumb.
In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph: “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 tires 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.” [source: Wikipedia]
According to Thompson’s son, Lange got some details of this story wrong, but the impact of the picture was based on the image showing the strength and need of migrant worker.
“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable.
I’ve only touched it, just touched it.”
Dorothea Lange’s images are stunning, evocative, hypnotically impressive and heart-breaking at the same time. If there is anyone I would recommend studying for authentic portraiture, it would be Dorothea Lange who has always been one of my heroes. One can, of course, argue that the circumstances in which she worked and the era in which she found herself, made for easily obtained stunning portraits. But there has been no one els from the same era who created such a body of work that you could spend hours looking at – in a gallery – or in her book.
“The pageant is vast and I clutch at tiny details, inadequate.”
“I had to get my camera to register things that were more important than how poor they were–their pride, their strength, their spirit.”
“A photographer’s files are, in a sense, his autobiography. More resides there than he is aware of. …As fragmentary and incomplete as the archaeologist’s pot shards, it can be no less telling.”
More on Dorothea Lange here:
- Dorothea Lange on Wikipedia – comprehensive bio
- Dorothea Lange on History Place – lots more pictures with detailed captions
- Essay by Susannah Abbey on My Hero.com