Photographic Awareness

Dorothea (Nutzhorn) Lange was born in 1895 in New Jersey. When she was seven, she was a polio victim giving her a limp for the rest of her life. When she was 12, her father abandoned the family. When her mother worked, she would wander the streets and observe people. This was to become her life’s destiny.

She decided to major in photography in college, even though she had never used a camera at the time. Through apprenticeships, she learned how to become a studio photographer doing portraits. She traveled to San Francisco and created her own portrait studio focusing on the elite.

In the depths of the Depression, Dorothea decided to leave her studio and capture images of those who were suffering. She essentially invented documentary photography. One of her photographs (White Angel Breadline) depicted a man in line at a soup kitchen run by a widow known as the White Angel. This led to her being employed by the Farm Security Administration to capture images of those affected by the Depression.

Dorothea, in addition to capturing images, also told the stories of those she photographed. One of those images called Migrant Woman told the story of a woman and children living off discarded vegetables and birds they were able to kill. The photograph triggered governmental action to prevent starvation.

When Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, Dorothea began to tell their stories through photographs. Those photos are a reminder today of the injustice done toward people, based simply on their heritage.

She would later capture images of poor people who were mistreated by our judicial system. All her photographs left the viewer with an interest in knowing more. This had an impact on how the public viewed her work as a call to action.

Few people know the name of Dorothea Lange today but her documentary photograph is a form of story telling that remains powerful in our society today even though advances in imaging are far more compelling. There is something about a stark photograph (often in black and white) that stays with us much longer than a video chip.

Dorothea died at the age of 70 after suffering from a decade of health conditions known as post-polio syndrome. Her cause of death was esophageal cancer. She was a force in Depression-era America in creating a national “We”.

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“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange

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