Dorothea Lange was born in 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. When she was twelve, her father walked out on the family and was never heard from again. Dorothea moved into her grandmother’s home in Manhattan with her mother, Joan, who took a job as a librarian. Bored and disillusioned with school, she would often cut class and just go walking through her neighborhood, the lower east side of New York. It was during these long walks through downtown Manhattan that Dorothea discovered a wealth of visual imagery and decided that she wanted to take photographs.
Instead of becoming a teacher as her mother wanted, she went uptown to the studio of a famous portrait photographer, Arnold Genthe, and asked him for a job. She was hired, and her life’s work began. She learned how to set up a camera and studio lights, met many rich and famous people, and studied the artistry with which Genthe portrayed people: he didn’t just snap their picture; he seemed to make the camera understand the people. This sense that an understanding of a subject was essential in making a portrait was truly the artistic part of photography, and something that Dorothea would take with her for the rest of her career. She worked with Genthe until she moved to San Francisco in 1918. The following year she opened a successful portrait studio.
Although she got her start and made most of her money taking portraits of wealthy people, Lange preferred the deeper challenge of photographing the real human condition. Wherever there was social upheaval, or quiet suffering, Lange was there with a compassionate eye to record and report. “I had to get my camera to register things that were more important than how poor they were–their pride, their strength, their spirit.” During the depression, the government created work for writers, scholars and artists through various documentary assignments, and Lange was fortunate to get such a position. She took pictures of the labor strikes in San Francisco, photographed out-of-work sharecroppers and their families in the deep South, and went up and down California, meeting and photographing the homeless families who had come in search of work. She would walk into camps, where homeless pea-pickers and refugees of the Oklahoma dust bowl were scraping by, sometimes starving to death, and talk to them until they felt comfortable enough to have their pictures taken. Dorothea thought that her limp, which she had since the age of seven due to polio, created an instant rapport between herself and her subjects. She said that people trusted her more because she didn’t appear “whole and secure” in the face of their poverty and insecurity.
In 1952, Lange co-founded the photographic magazine Aperture. She died of cancer at the age of 70. In 1965, the last year of her life, Dorothea Lange was honored by a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.