Notes on the Culture

How Dorothea Lange Defined the Role of the Modern Photojournalist

She created one of the most enduring images of the 20th century, but she also created a new model for her discipline.

The Library of Congress file card for Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother,” by far the artist’s most famous image.
Credit...Dorothea Lange’s “Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936 [sic],” Library of Congress file card, circa 1936. Farm Security Administration–Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

FOR THE ENTIRE second half of Dorothea Lange’s life, a quotation from the English philosopher Francis Bacon floated in her peripheral vision: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” She pinned a printout of these words up on her darkroom door in 1933. It remained there until she died, at 70, in 1965 — three months before her first retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and three decades after she took the most iconic photograph in the medium’s history.

“Migrant Mother,” Lange’s 1936 portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, whose identity wasn’t known for more than 40 years, shows the rag-shrouded torso and shining face of a handsome young woman. She’s seated at a California campsite for migrant workers during the Great Depression, and yet she looks timeless. Her fingers lightly touch the corner of her mouth as she squints into the distance, two of her children hiding from the camera behind her shoulders. Overwhelming hardship but also resilience are evident in both her facial expression and body language. Taken while Lange was working for the federal government’s Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program that aided the high volume of economically displaced, the picture was in MoMA’s inaugural photography exhibition in 1940, alongside works by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. Since then, it’s likely been exhibited there more times than any other photograph, and it is on view again at the museum’s second retrospective of Lange, which opened this month. The image, which has appeared on postage stamps, jigsaw puzzles, magazine covers and T-shirts, is familiar even to American schoolchildren. Because it was taken while Lange was a government employee, its rights are in the public domain. It can be — and is — reproduced by anyone, at any time, for any reason.

Unlike a large portion of Lange’s work, the image was never obscure. On the same day that Thompson’s likeness was published in the San Francisco News, it was announced that the federal government was sending 20,000 pounds of food to the California migrant camp where she and her children had been living. “I did not ask her name or her history,” Lange recalled. She learned her age, which was 32, and a few atmospheric details that Thompson would later dispute, but nothing more.

ImageDorothea Lange’s “Tractored Out, Childress County, Texas” (1938).
Credit...The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.

The lack of contextualizing information was atypical for Lange, who believed, uncommonly for a photographer, that “there is no photograph ... that can’t be fortified by words.” If Lange is remembered disproportionately for one photograph out of thousands, she is also remembered disproportionately for pictures in a career that also very much included words. After photographing her subjects, she rushed to take down what they said to use as a caption or a title, and then selected choice quotes, with an ear for the poetry of vernacular language. “An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion,” her book on rural poverty from 1939, includes some of the most bracing examples, and even its endpapers are printed with captions like: “Burned out, blowed out, eat out, tractored out,” “We made a dollar working from dawn until you just can’t see,” “I’ve wrote back that we are well and such as that, but I never have wrote that we live in a tent.”

Looking at Lange’s career today, it’s possible to see that her photographic innovations were less visual and technical than they were interpersonal. She spoke while taking people’s pictures. Before asking them any questions at all, she talked about herself. She explained where she was from and her job as she understood it to be; she spoke of her children and of how much she missed them while on assignment. By revealing herself, subjects showed themselves to her in return. More than perhaps any other photographer’s work, Lange’s was less about bearing witness to history than it was about engaging directly with it, of being part of history itself.

Like the new journalists of the 1960s and 1970s, people like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, who brought frank personal bias to forms of writing previously heralded as objective, Lange, decades earlier, did something similar in photography. She blurred the line between reportage and fine art and, in so doing, opened the medium for its most celebrated practitioners, the people who would be the inheritors of Lange’s expressiveness and empathy, from Robert Frank to Wolfgang Tillmans. Her contemporary Ansel Adams called her pictures “both records of actuality and exquisitely sensitive emotional documents.” She was an artist under the guise of a journalist and an activist under the guise of a dispassionate civil servant, and it would be impossible to think of any of these roles today without her influence.

LANGE WAS BORN at the very end of the 19th century to educated and prosperous first-generation German-Americans. She read literature, patronized the arts and contracted polio. She retained the limp for the rest of her life. “... [It] formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” she said. She grew up in Hoboken, N.J., but attended high school in Manhattan. For fun, she strolled along the Bowery after class — “a lame little girl walking down that street unprotected,” as she once put it. It was then that she first “learned to be unseen.” This combination of looking and disappearing led her to announce, before she ever owned a camera, that she would become a photographer.

Credit...Dorothea Lange, “Woodland, Yolo County, Calif.,” May 20, 1942, Courtesy of National Archives photo no. 210-G-C514

After working in New York for several years post high school — and taking a class at Columbia University with the famed art photographer Clarence H. White — she decided to take off on a trip around the world with a friend; a pickpocket curtailed their ambitions and they never made it farther than California. Lange would live there for the next half century. Despite her brief experience with White, she was mostly self-taught, trained in the commercial demands of commissioned portrait photography, whose wealthy subjects sat for her in a rented San Francisco studio. She grew into her aesthetic style and moral motivations, which came to her, together, at once. She was still married to her first husband at the time, an esteemed landscape and mural painter, and her two sons were young. It was 1933, and the Great Depression had reached its lowest point. Lange looked out the window of her studio, where her wealthy and safely ensconced patrons sat, and saw the ravages of joblessness and hunger on the streets below. It was then that she took her first documentary photograph, “White Angel Breadline,” which today remains a kind of visual shorthand for food scarcity during the Depression.

This single image — of a group of downtrodden men, all with their backs to the camera except one, whose dirty face is looking hopelessly at the ground — would position Lange alongside Woody Guthrie as a primary witness to America’s decline in the 1930s. With her camera she would capture remarkably intimate images that were universal in their communication of shared suffering: an oddly thin baby nursing at his mother’s breast inside a homemade tent in Blythe, Calif. (“Drought Refugees From Oklahoma Camping by the Roadside,” 1936); a man sitting beside an upturned wheelbarrow, his head bowed low in desperation (“Man Beside Wheelbarrow,” 1934); two laborers walking down a long and empty dirt road with perhaps all they own in their hands, as they stride past a mocking billboard advertisement for the Southern Pacific railway that reads “Next Time Try the Train, Relax” (“Toward Los Angeles, California,” 1937).

Not long after abandoning society pictures, Lange was separated from her husband and working alongside Paul Taylor, a Berkeley agricultural economist whom she would soon marry. The California State Emergency Relief Administration hired Taylor in 1934 to study migrant workers, and he convinced them to hire Lange in 1935, sneaking her onto his research trips as a typist, knowing very well that she would, in fact, be photographing everything. They traversed the state and together devised a new kind of multimedia sociology, one that was part oral history and part visual documentation. Sometimes their tactics were wily. In Arizona, Taylor got a running count of migrants by hiring a gas-station attendant to clock them. His figures, alongside Lange’s photographs of extreme destitution and hopelessness, were the first records of what would become known as the Dust Bowl, the name given to the drought-choked Southern Plains. The physical image we retain of this era was almost single-handedly shaped by Lange. Her initial joint report with Taylor was spiral-bound and included over 50 of Lange’s photographs. These were bureaucratic reports conceived like novels, with Lange capturing the sort of detail no pie chart could render — the decaying roll of linoleum, for instance, that a homeless family had been carting around for three years in hopes of once again having a kitchen floor.

Credit...The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Albert M. Bender

For the next four years, Lange was employed by the federal government’s Resettlement Administration, renamed the Farm Security Administration in 1937, and developed a compassionate but matter-of-fact style that focused merely on the subjects of the day, ones that have once again become familiar: environmental degradation, rural poverty, mass migration. Her depictions of these topics would define the rest of her career and help create a topical lexicon of American concerns, and her mythic compositions made from ordinary lives appear neither intentionally newsworthy nor artificially arranged. Lange’s attention to texture and detail make individual human subjects look like evidence of a national crime. Indeed, her 1942 photographs of Manzanar, the concentration camp in eastern California where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II, were impounded and then censored by the military. Among the ones found most dangerous to the national image showed workers picking crops in a greenhouse, whose intricate frame cast striped shadows that resembled prison bars. In their depictions of inhospitably barren landscapes, institutional living facilities and tiny children with numbered tags hung around their necks, they look eerily similar to photographs being taken today at the Mexican border. These images, alongside her portraits of the Dust Bowl, did nothing less than heighten the stakes of what we expect from a photograph, expectations that persist: These days, the camera, whether a Leica or an iPhone, is not so much a documentary tool as a politicking one — an incitement to outrage, a method through which to seek dramatic transformations of the status quo.

IT WASN’T UNTIL a 1963 trip around the world with Taylor, Lange said, that she truly considered herself to be an artist. For a few years before the journey, she had been a freelance photographer at Life magazine and thought of her work as something closer to straightforward journalism. But it was in places where she knew no one, didn’t speak the language and traveled by rickshaw and motorbike that the sensitivity of her own vision became clear even to herself. By this time, she was suffering from esophageal cancer and so thin that her clothes had to be held up with safety pins. When she returned, she began assembling decades’ worth of work for her MoMA retrospective — she thought of it as making sentences out of pictures, paragraphs if she was lucky. Lange was only eating soft foods by this point and rarely ventured outside. She kept a camera around her neck, though, “for health,” and continued to take photographs — of her house, of her family. Her son wrote to the curator saying that he thought she was staying alive almost entirely for his visits. He estimated her chances of living to see the show open as 50-50.

MoMA, which hadn’t devoted a major show to Lange since, reopened last fall after months of renovation with a fortified list of existential priorities, one of which is to approach its permanent collection with the enthusiasm and scholarship that in the past was typically spent on loaned works. It’s in this spirit that the curator Sarah Meister organized “Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures.” The exhibition spans approximately a hundred photographs. It unfolds more or less chronologically, but in keeping with Lange’s belief that a photograph’s effect can be fortified with text, the gallery layout includes reading areas so visitors can experience the text as they would in a book, instead of uncomfortably on the wall.

What does Lange’s career look like in 2020? It’s clear she was an anomaly from the start, an evident female star in a field dominated by men, a photographer whose work was both funded by the federal government and embraced by the contemporary art world of her day. She produced evidence of the worst moments in this country’s history: the migration of the sick and starved across the country during the Depression, the cruel folly of Japanese internment and the moral disaster of segregation. (In 1941, her photographs of black farmers in the South would accompany Richard Wright’s prose in the book “12 Million Black Voices.”) But it was in looking at these grim, often ignored corners of life that Lange found figures of resilience, dignity and unlikely survival. Her legacy combines two fields — art and journalism — whose entirely separate constraints and ethics can still, at their best, change the world.

For a woman whose images seemed to reveal so much about others, there is only a small amount of material that reveals Lange herself, just a handful of blurry images from her travels through the ruins of the American West during the Depression, her small frame almost eclipsed by her hulking camera. Perhaps the greatest portrait that exists of her is an excerpt from crackly, black-and-white film footage from 1964, where she’s seen discussing the negative of a picture she shot of some elegantly proportioned pueblo steps in New Mexico, beside which lies a bit of rubbish. “The man with a certain kind of training will never remove those two cans and the other man must,” she says. She pauses, mutters the words “these wretched little cans down here,” and then she sighs. “Well,” she concludes, “you accept it.” Lange didn’t necessarily accept the flaws in the world around her, but she didn’t look away, either.