Masters of Photography – Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

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With enough practice and desire to become good at photography each photographer will develop their own style. An important part of improving our skills and developing our style is to learn from leading photographers and discover what sets them apart from the “crowd.”

As mentioned in an earlier article, we are restarting the Masters of Photography series. This time we’re making it a regular Tuesday feature instead of placing it in the asides. It may seem at first that only photographers from before 1960 are being featured but more modern photography masters will be featured in later articles. All of these photographers, whether from the 1800′s or the 2000′s, have captured images that can never be captured again. We can try to stage a similar image, but it will never be the same and as individual photographers, we’ll never develop our own style by copying others. Yet by learning what they photographed and how they did it we will add to our own knowledge.

Dorothea Lange was an influential documentary photographer who was best known for her Depression Era work. When employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), she chronicled the hardships and consequences of the Depression on impoverished Americans, especially the migrant farm workers. Her work profoundly influenced documentary photography and she has been called America’s greatest documentary photographer. From 1935 to 1939, Lange’s work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten — particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers — to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era.

'Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California'

The Migrant Mother, which is probably her best known photo, still tells its story as clearly today as it did in 1936 when it was taken. Lange, in 1960, recounted the experience of photographing The Migrant Mother:

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.

In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor she gave up the award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to relocation camps. She covered the rounding up of Japanese Americans and their internment in relocation camps, highlighting Manzanar, the first of the permanent internment camps.

The photograph of the Japanese-American children pledging allegiance to the flag shortly being sent to internment camps is a haunting reminder of the policy of detaining people without charging them with any crime or affording any appeal.

The grocery store in the photo was owned by a Japanese-American. The banner “I am an American” was unfurled shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lange took the photograph in 1942 shortly before the owner was “relocated” to an internment camp.

In 1945 Lange accepted an offer from Ansel Adams to become a faculty member for the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Immogene Cunningham and Minor White also joined that faculty.

In 1952 she was one of the co-founders of the photography magazine Aperture.

Photo Credits:

All photos by Dorothea Lange

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