Most people know her photographs better than they know her name.
Dorethea Lange was probably the most important photographer/photojournalist of the 20th century. Her birth name was Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn, but she adopted her mother’s maiden name of Lange after her father abandoned the family when Dorothea was 12. Like the president who guided America through the Depression, Dorothea had polio, which not only gave her a weakened right leg and a severe limp, but perhaps also a sensitivity that lent her an empathetic lens.
She moved from New Jersey to California and turned her back on a much easier, more lucrative career as a portrait photographer in a San Francisco studio to go on out on the streets where she could chronicle the plight of the unemployed and homeless. Her excellent eye as a photographer was noticed by a couple of governmental agencies, including the Farm Security Administration and soon she was commissioned to chronicle the plight of the victims of the dust bowl and the depression. Lange turned her lens on those dirt poor sharecroppers and migrant laborers who were forced from their homes and out into the stifling heat of the picking fields. It was around this time that she took her most famous photos, including the above, “Migrant Mother,” her best-known photo series bringing to life this immense economic hardship.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dorothea Lange learned of the interning of Japanese-Americans into camps in California and decided to photograph that abomination. Once again Lange won awards and accolades. Unfortunately the U.S. Army decided to impound many of these latest photo’s. Thus much of her work on this campaign was never seen by the American public. It can now be viewed half a century later in libraries.
Dorothea Lange passed away in 1965 at the age of 70, after two decades fraught by ill health. But her legacy lives on in her photographs and in the faces of the individuals who many would have rather ignore.
In this new Millennium, we live in a new and different time of mass ignorance. One wonders why there are no present-day Dorothea Lange’s or other such photojournalists who could help awaken America from its current stupor and vapidity. My belief is that there are photographers who do similar important work, but we are just not that interested.
Take a look around you. There are just as many desperate faces and vacant buildings as there were during the depression of the 1930’s. Perhaps if we as a nation could take a second to distract ourselves from the current celebrity fascination and freak show culture in which we live we might start acting and voting based on the reality of life in 2010.
Maybe we can use the work of Dorothea Lange as an inspiration and as a template to dedicate ourselves to see into the eyes of the sick, needy and poor.
Perhaps then we can begin to rebuild the devastation that exists in our own dead cities, brick by brick.