Andre Cantelmo Photography | Dorthea Lange, Iconic Photographer of the Twentieth Century

Dorthea Lange, Iconic Photographer of the Twentieth Century

April 01, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Edward Steichen referred to Dorothea Lange as The greatest documentary photographer in the United States. Dorothea referred to her own art, “I just photograph things as they are”. She was a rebel in her time, worked spontaneously and in difficult conditions. She was inquisitive and sought to reveal the truth of how things were, she photographed the reality of her times.

Dorothea was born in New Jersey at the end of the 1800's, and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At an early age she became a very skilled observer of the rich life on the streets of New York. One skill she taught herself was to hide in plain sight, to be an observer without influencing a scene. Early on she was employed at the studio of Arnold Genthe, where she learned darkroom skills, and honed her early photographic style. After World War I, she began to travel and found herself in San Francisco, where she took a darkroom job with a Dry Goods store. Some connections with the photographic community surfaced and it was not long before Dorthea opened her own studio. In her studio days, she thrived on commissioned work, photographing families. It was at this time her style began to emerge. Imogen Cunningham was an early and important influence on her developing style.

The Stock Market Crash that began the great depression turned out to be another influence on her maturing style. From her studio, life in the Depression years of San Francisco offered up plenty of emotional subject matter. She created “White Angel Breadline” one of the most famous photographs of the Depression. Dorothea also perfected her work style in these years. She would start out, pick a direction, and without much planning look for her subjects. She would engage her subject in conversation, and as a result capture emotion as well as composition as she worked. Her Farm Security Administration photographs would become her most important work. Her composition “Migrant Mother” defined the Thirties, and in my opinion is her most important photograph. In Nipomo, California, at a campsite full of out-of-work pea pickers. The crop, destroyed by freezing rain; there was nothing to pick. Dorothea approached one of the idle pickers, a woman sitting in a tent, surrounded by her children, and asked if she could photograph them. Lange exposed six frames. One of them, Migrant Mother, became the icon of the Depression, and one of the most famous images of the 20th century. With her children cowering for protection, hiding their faces, the Migrant Mother gazes distractedly into the distance and perhaps the future that is so uncertain.

In 1965 Dorothea developed inoperable Cancer. This prompted her to review her life's work, and mount an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. She would spend precious time editing forty one years of photography. She believed her life's work was in fact an autobiography, and  this exhibition completed her life's work.

If you are unfamiliar with Dorothea Lang's work you have missed the work of a great photographer. Her work is full of emotion, depth, and is well composed. In an era that produced a good share of excellent photographers, Dorothea stands out, and is a treasure. I was fortunate to see her work at an exhibition many years ago, and the rich tones, and impeccable composition are mesmerizing. Dorothea Lange is not only a photographic treasure, she belongs in that handful of most influential people of the 20th century. 


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