Dorothea Lange: Biography, Photography & Migrant Mother

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

In this lesson you'll learn about one of America's most iconic photographers, Dorothea Lange. You'll also get an up-close look at one of her most famous photographs and learn how one woman's work changed America's view of the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange - A Pioneer of American Photography

You've probably heard that saying that a picture says a thousand words, right? But did you know that one woman's pictures actually tell the story of an entire generation? Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) lived and worked in a time when photography was still considered new and the American government was looking for a way to document a difficult era. The combination led to some of the most iconic photographs in American history. Read on to learn more about Lange's life, photography, and most famous work: 'Migrant Mother.'

Dorothea's Life

Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn in New Jersey in 1895. She contracted polio as a child, the effects of which stayed with her throughout her life. After high school, she decided she wanted to become a photographer. She studied at Columbia University in New York and worked as an apprentice to professional photographers before moving to San Francisco and opening her own portrait photography studio in 1918.

It was in San Francisco, in the early 1930s, that Lange began taking pictures of the first impacts of the hardships of the Great Depression. You can see her here in a photograph taken in 1936. By this time her style was best described as Documentary Photography, or photographs meant to document people, places, and ideas without bias.

Lange on truck

Lange had two children with her first husband, Maynard Dixon, before divorcing him prior to 1935. One of the main reasons for the divorce was Lange's attraction to a labor economist named Paul Taylor, whom she'd met while taking photographs of Americans suffering during the Depression. The two fell in love, later married, and traveled the country documenting American Hardship for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which began as the Resettlement Administration as part of the New Deal. The FSA's goal was to help farmers get back on their feet after the Depression began and the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s made farming even more difficult in middle America.

Migrant Mother

While working in Nipomo, California in the mid-1930s, Lange came across a camp of pea pickers who were out of work because the crops had been destroyed by freezing rain. Lange asked a 32-year-old mother of three, whose name she did not know, if she could photograph her. The woman's family was struggling to survive, and she had just sold the tires off her car to feed her children.

The photograph, now known as 'Migrant Mother,' became one of the most notable images of the Depression era. The woman's two older children (do you see the baby in her lap?) were not meant to be in the picture, but ran to their mother's sides while Lange was photographing her to seek comfort. What kinds of emotions do you see in the image?

Migrant Mother
Migrant Mother

Lange had told the woman the image would not be published, but it ended up in a local newspaper. Fortunately, the woman had moved to another town to find work by the time the newspaper was printed.

In 1978, a reporter discovered the name of the woman in the iconic image. Florence Thompson told her story to the reporter because she wanted others to understand the hardship she, and others, had been through. Thompson passed away in 1983.

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