Dorothea Nutzhorn was born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. When she was seven, she suffered a severe case of polio, which gave her a limp for the rest of her life. Dorothea’s father abandoned her family when she was 12. In response, her mother returned to her maiden name of Lange. Dorothea, who was close to her mother, also chose to use Lange.
Dorothea’s mother worked as a librarian across the Hudson River in New York City. She enrolled Dorothea in a school near her work. Each day, Dorothea and her mother took the ferry into the city. When she was 17, she began taking photography classes in Manhattan.
In 1918, Dorothea and her friend Florence Bates decided to travel around the world. They crossed the continental United States, but gave up when they reached San Francisco. Dorothea liked the West Coast so much that she decided to stay. She found herself drawn to the West and its nature. Her later career was strongly influenced by this new-found passion.
Within a year, Dorothea opened a photography studio. Many wealthy San Francisco residents came to her for artistic portraits. Through this work, Dorothea met the painter Maynard Dixon.
The two fell in love and married in 1920. They traveled and appeared at society events together. Many people saw them as a bright, young, artistic couple. But Dorothea and Maynard had challenges at home. Both of them wanted to pursue their careers, but they had two sons to raise. Dorothea had the larger income through her portrait studio, but Maynard expected her to prioritize his career. He often traveled for long stretches, leaving Dorothea and the children alone. Gossip spread that he was having affairs during these art trips. Eventually they separated. Their divorce was finalized in 1935.
When the Great Depression hit, Dorothea felt conflicted about her career as a photographer for the elite. She felt separated from real Americans who were struggling every day. Embracing this feeling, she closed up her studio and took to the road. She photographed Americans of all walks of life, hoping to document the challenges of a severe economic depression.
Dorothea pursued a career that required constant motion and travel despite lifelong challenges with her leg and hip. Her disability made it difficult and painful to move around. But she often saw it as an important part of her process. She believed that many people were nicer to her because she had a visible disability. Once she gained their trust, they were more willing to allow her to photograph them in their natural state.
As Dorothea traveled and documented America, she met the economist Paul Taylor. Paul and Dorothea found they had much in common. They both cared deeply about Americans and worked to advocate for them through their chosen careers. Dorothea took photos of people, and Paul studied their economic habits and patterns.
Dorothea and Paul married in 1935. This time her marriage was one of cooperation and support. They remained married for the rest of Dorothea’s life. Paul thought Dorothea was incredibly talented. He recommended she work with him for the State Emergency Relief Administration. Paul researched the economics of agriculture, and Dorothea photographed struggling migrant workers. Dorothea’s work with Paul led to a similar job working for the Farm Security Administration.
Dorothea did not view her photographs as art. Rather, they were documentation of American life. Dorothea strongly believed in the ideals of American democracy, including equal rights for all citizens. She wanted her photographs to promote these ideals and demonstrate democracy’s limitations. It was not a coincidence that Dorothea captured so many different types of Americans. She intentionally photographed migrants, sharecroppers, and other marginalized Americans from varied ethnicities and races.
Dorothea was an optimist. Although her photographs often captured people at their lowest points, they also showed resiliency. Dorothea hoped others would see her images and sympathize with their fellow Americans who were struggling. Many of her images were published anonymously in newspapers and magazines. In many cases, the images would encourage the public to take action, raise funds, or advocate for those less fortunate in their communities.
In 1940, Dorothea received a prestigious grant that gave her enough money to live for one year and just create art. Dorothea invited her son Daniel Dixon and her friend Ansel Adams to photograph Mormon communities in America. As World War II escalated, though, Dorothea and Ansel put the project on hold to do something they considered more important.
The two colleagues were hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the experience of Japanese Americans in internment camps. Dorothea was opposed to internment policies and saw this as an opportunity to witness and document the truth.
She was instructed to capture all steps in the process, but she may have been too good at her job. Her photographs honestly showed the tragedy of Japanese internment. Parents and children were shown in horrific and heartbreaking conditions. The U.S. Army refused to share Dorothea’s photographs with a wider audience. No one saw her Japanese internment photographs until decades after the war.
The visual life is an enormous undertaking. . . . I have only touched it with this wonderful democratic instrument, the camera . . .
Following the war, Dorothea returned to her own projects. Paul served as a diplomat. The two traveled the world together. Dorothea brought her camera and turned her eye toward people of diverse backgrounds in other countries.
Dorothea was often a private person. In the 1950s, she began to reflect on her career and comment on the changing field of photography. Dorothea worried that photographers moved too fast and did not fully capture the world around them. She argued that they did not show what they saw, but rather created images that showed the world as they wanted it to be. She advocated for more photographers to take her approach and let the subjects reveal themselves.
In 1965, Dorothea was diagnosed with cancer. That same year, she prepared for a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Dorothea spent months reviewing a career’s worth of photographs and reflecting on her life. She died of cancer on October 11, 1965 in Berkeley, California. She was 70 years old. Her MoMA retrospective opened just three months after her death.
agriculture: The science and practice of growing food and other products or raising farm animals.
documentary photography: The practice of taking pictures of real-life events or people in their natural state.
economist: An expert in economics.
Farm Security Administration: A government agency that focused on supporting and ending rural poverty. The agency hired photographers to document the lives of rural workers.
internment: The state of being imprisoned.
migrant worker: A person who travels to different places seeking temporary or seasonal work.
Mormon: A person who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was founded in the United States by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830.
polio: An infectious disease that affects the nervous system and can result in paralysis.
retrospective: A museum exhibition focused on one person’s career.
sharecropper: A farmer who works on land owned by someone else and shares the profits with their landlord.
State Emergency Relief Administration: A government agency that distributed relief funds to unemployed citizens.
How did Dorothea respond to the Great Depression and why?
How was Dorothea’s life and career shaped by her two marriages? How were they similar and how were they different?
Dorothea did not always view her work as art. Why not? What motivated her to travel across the country taking pictures?
Dorothea took some of the most famous photographs of the Great Depression. But the government often distributed images without the photographer’s names, so Dorothea was relatively unknown. Why do you think it is important to learn about the person behind these famous images?
Dorothea suffered a disability for most of her life. How did it shape her career? What does this tell you about her personality?
View some of Dorothea’s images of sharecroppers. Ask students to analyze them. How do they represent Dorothea’s commitment to democratic documentary photography?
Expand on the study of Dorothea’s work. Complete the same activity as above, but with her most famous photograph, Migrant Mother. She took this while working with Paul Taylor in 1936. Ask students why they think this is her most famous work. How does it represent her style? What is particularly powerful about this iconic image? What does it tell viewers about the Great Depression?
Dorothea was not the only artist of the Great Depression to advocate for democracy through her work. Compare her life story with the work of Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage. How did each woman educate the public about life in America?