Dorothea Lange began her career as a portrait photographer, and in 1919, she set up a portrait studio in San Francisco California. Her intent was to photograph people and make them appear timeless and undated.
Lange and her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon traveled around the southwest. When the Great Depression hit, she resolved to photograph the now rather than the timeless, “to capture somehow the effects on people of the calamity which overwhelmed America” (Newhall, 5). This is when she took her camera from the studio out onto the streets.
With her camera, she “recorded the despair and uncertainty of the urban unemployed and the poverty of migrant families who lived in the roadside camps” (Newhall 5-9).
In 1935, Lange was asked to join the photographic staff of the Resettlement Administration, later named the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
She photographed throughout California, in the South, Southwest, and Plains States. Her resulting pictures constitute a major portion of the FSA’s vast record of Depression-era America.
“Her subjects convey the humiliation of poverty and the loss of identity that comes with unemployment” (Davis 7-9).
On her way home after a long trip of photographing, Lange saw a crude sign with a pointing arrow flashing by the side of the road. It read: PEA-PICKERS CAMP. She turned off the highway and followed the sign.
In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience to Popular Photography:
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions… I made five exposures, working closer. She told me her age that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it” (Popular Photography, February, 1960).
Lange’s photograph, Migrant Mother is known as the picture of Farm Security (Meltzer, 133). Migrant Mother is the well-known title of this photograph, however, an alternate title given by the Library of Congress is, Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.
After developing the Nipomo negatives, Lange told the editor of the San Francisco News that the pea pickers were starving. The editor notified United Press, and the News carried a UP report that the federal government was rushing 20,000 pounds of food in to feed the hungry migrants. Alongside the headlines appeared two of Lange’s photographs of the mother and her children. Nowhere in the news story was Lange credited for the photos.
Lange’s image of the Migrant Mother is now seen as an icon of the period as a whole. (Fisher 10)
Lange and her second husband Paul Taylor produced the documentary book An American Exodus, based on the quoted observations of their subjects.
After her work for FSA, she continued making documentary images until her death in 1965.