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Dorothea Lange

“Put your camera around your neck along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you.” – Dorothea Lange

The misery that followed in the wake of the 1929 New York stock market crash was devastating, costing millions their jobs and homes, forcing them to go on the road in search of work. Dorothea Lange's photographs show lines of people waiting for welfare payments, people sleeping in the streets, people looking for a job, moving from town to town. Others had long since been forced to exchange their apartment for a car, a tent, or a hovel. Lange visited workers' camps at the edge of cotton and tobacco fields and orchards, the city slums, San Francisco's soup kitchens (White Angel Breadline, 1933), and the demonstrations and general strike that took place there in 1934. On commission from Roy Striker of the Resettlement Administration (RA, later FSA), Lange sought out areas worst hit by the Depression, to record the fate of the stranded and destitute. From fall 1935 to fall 1936 alone, she covered 1,700 miles through 14 states. She photographed families with undernourished children in ragged clothes, once proud workers and farmers at the end of their endurance.

The terrible drought that hit the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in 1936 forced even sharecroppers to abandon their fields. And yet, even in the face of such strokes of fate, Lange firmly believed these people retained their pride, resolution, and courage. In 1942, citizens of Japanese origin were confined in internment camps built expressly for the purpose. Lange recorded these, as well as the harvest workers who streamed in from Mexico to offset the dearth of farm labor caused by the war. A portrait photographer from the start, Lange devoted herself to street photography only marginally. She looked for the traces of human experiences and feelings in people's faces, the expression in their eyes, their gestures. And her pictures teach us what confrontation with reality means. A statement by the Elizabethan writer Francis Bacon was pinned to her darkroom door: 'The contemptation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

There were three rules to which Lange always adhered: "Whatever I photograph, I do not molest or tamper with or arrange. Second: a sense of place. Whatever I photograph, I try to picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third: a sense of time. Whatever I photograph, I try to show as having its position in the past or in the present."

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan


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