Photographer. Her simply composed but affecting Depression-era documentary photographs reveal human despair and suffering, but also dignity and strength. Facial expressions, gestures, and body language of individual subjects illustrate the effects of large-scale social forces. In “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” (1936), a careworn farm worker holds a sleeping infant on her lap, as two other children bury their faces on her shoulders. Perhaps the most famous of all Farm Security Administration photographs, this arresting image compels the viewer's sympathy, fulfilling Lange's intent to use her medium to promote social change. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Margretta Nutzhorn assumed her mother's maiden name in 1918. Polio, contracted at age seven, left her with a limp and conditioned her responsiveness to human distress. From the age of twelve she lived in New York, where she worked between 1912 and 1917 in several portrait studios, including Arnold Genthe's. During these years, she mastered a softly flattering pictorialist approach to portraiture, studied briefly with Clarence White, and set her sights on working her way around the world. She got as far as San Francisco. In 1918 she took a job there and in 1919 opened a successful portrait studio. Her artistic development slowed after marriage in 1920 to Maynard Dixon (1875–1946), a painter of western landscapes and American Indians, followed by the birth of children and travels with her husband in the Southwest. However, in 1932, as she observed effects of the Depression in San Francisco, she dedicated herself to documenting socially induced suffering. One of her earliest works in this vein, “White Angel Bread Line” (1932/33), centers on a man in shabby dress, as he turns away from others in a charity queue to lean heavily on a barrier, his battered tin cup resting between his arms. Seen from slightly above, his face is obscured by his hat brim, giving him the anonymity of a symbol. His bearing reveals failure, alienation, and sadness, representing the plight of millions.
After meeting economics professor Paul Taylor in 1934, Lange soon started to work with him documenting migrant workers for a government program. Following her divorce, she and Taylor were married in 1935, forming a thirty-year personal and professional partnership. Also in 1935, she began a four-year association with the Farm Security Association (known until 1937 as the Resettlement Administration). Taylor, a labor expert, continued to work for another government agency, so they often traveled together, sharing a dedication to social justice as they roamed the West and South, witnessing the devastation of the Depression and Dust Bowl. In 1939 their work culminated in American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. Among the finest documentary publications of the period, it includes not only Lange's photographs and Taylor's scholarly analysis but also the words of her subjects. Although her strongest work dates to the 1930s, Lange completed a forceful series on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Also in the early 1940s she photographed utopian religious communities. In the 1950s she pursued a variety of projects, including a number of magazine assignments, as she sustained her interests in rural communities and in transformations brought by industrialization. From the late 1950s until her death, she accompanied her husband to rural Third World locations where he served as an international consultant on agrarian problems. On these expeditions, she continued to photograph but did not rival earlier accomplishments, partly because of failing health. She died in San Francisco.