Dorothea Lange left a successful portrait studio in San Francisco to become a documentary photographer, and from that time on, she documented the effects of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and Japanese internment camps, as well as other events and movements. “Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1935,” a stark photograph of Florence Thompson Owens, taken in California during the Depression, has become one of the most recognized photographs in the world.
Lange understood the suffering of the people she was photographing. As a small childhood, she contracted polio which left her with a twisted foot and permanent limp. She and her mother were abandoned by her father when she was 12, and she spent her teenage years wondering the streets of New York because her mother became so preoccupied that she rarely noticed her daughter.
As an adult her work was often curtailed by her debilitating illnesses. (She was the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship but was unable to complete it because of illness). Her marriage failed, and she was forced to put her children in foster care because she was gone so often in her work with the Farm Security Administration as a photographer.
Lange was more than a photographer in that she wrote captions for all the photos she took for the Farms Security Administration, and she was furious all her life that the FSA never published the captions with the photos. They were, in fact, distributed free to newspapers by the government. Linda Gordon, Lange’s biographer, has said that “she hated the iconization of her art.”
Lange herself said late in life, “I’ve been weary all my life, and I’ve always had to make a great effort to do the things that I really wanted to do, combating not having quite enough to do it with...You do, really, what you must do.”