About the Artist:

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)
Woman of the High Plains “If You Die, You’re Dead–That’s All.” Texas Panhandle, 1938
Gelatin silver print, 1960s
© The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland, Gift of Paul S. Taylor
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
P1965.172.8

 

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), Woman of the High Plains “If You Die, You’re Dead–That’s All.” Texas Panhandle, 1938, gelatin silver print, 1960s, © The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, P1965.172.8

 

 

 

 

Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and later moved with her family to New York City where she saw people who were poor and homeless. At age seven, a bout with polio left her with a life-long limp. When she was twelve, her father abandoned the family, and her mother went to work as a librarian and social worker. She attended school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where most of her fellow students were immigrants. Lange felt like an outsider in this environment, an attitude reinforced by her conspicuous, embarrassing limp. Later in life, this sense of alienation would allow her to identify with the down–and–out victims of the Great Depression and to photograph them sympathetically.

After graduating from high school, Lange visited the New York portrait studio of photographer Arnold Genthe, who was persuaded to take her on as an apprentice. Genthe gave Lange her first camera, and she worked hard printing proofs of his photographs. Lange went on to study photography at Columbia University and in 1918 embarked on a world tour with a friend. When their money was stolen in California, Lange found work there as a photofinisher. In 1919 she opened a portrait studio in San Francisco, and a year later she married the painter Maynard Dixon.

In the early 1930s, the increasingly obvious effects of the Great Depression inspired Lange to take her camera out of the studio to photograph the unemployed and disadvantaged on the streets. The success of her independent documentary work led economist Paul Schuster Taylor to hire her to photograph migrant workers for the California State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA). Taylor was writing SERA field reports about the workers and their families and had insisted that a photographer be assigned to take pictures to accompany his text. Their working relationship eventually led to marriage after Lange’s previous union with Dixon failed.

Taylor and Lange’s photography of migrant laborers was so effective that it prompted the state of California to build camps for the migrant workers. Their reports even caught the attention of people in Washington. In 1935 they both began work for the federal Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). As one of the photographers hired for the FSA’s Historical Section, Lange was asked to record the dismal conditions on farms and in small towns across America hit hard by the depression. The primary purpose of the project was to justify federal assistance for the rural poor, a policy championed by the Roosevelt administration. While many FSA photographs merely documented the existence of poverty, some, such as Lange’s, put a human face on misery.

In 1941 Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she gave up in order to work for the war effort. Her health was a serious concern throughout the latter half of the decade and into the 1950s. When she recovered, she became a staff photographer for Life magazine and then freelanced while accompanying Taylor on United States aid missions to Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

Lange died of cancer in 1965. The following year, her first major retrospective was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Perhaps one of Lange’s greatest professional accomplishments was her 1967 photographic essay, The American Country Woman, which was published by the Amon Carter Museum two years after her death. She devoted twenty-five years of her life to this ongoing project in which she aimed to praise “women of the American soil,” using portraits paired with images of the women’s environments.


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