Most photographers get a chance to capture history, but few get the chance to shape history like famed photographer Dorothea Lange. New York University Professor Linda Gordon spoke on Lange’s life and photography, which captured events from the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement.
Gordon described the unique challenges Lange faced in her life. At one point, Gordon said, Lange wore pants not necessarily as a feminist statement, but to hide the fact she was afflicted with polio. Lange’s mother was worried that such a malady would make her daughter undesirable to men, so in lieu of a long skirt, Lange wore trousers.
Gordon went on to speak of how Lange moved to San Francisco in the 1910s, where she opened up a photo studio. Receiving many upper-class clients, Lange’s studio became among the most popular in the city, and Lange eventually entered her first marriage with a painter named Maynard Dixon.
Described as “the husband from Hell,” Dixon would be absent from is home months at a time – neglecting his wife and their three children, one of whom was from his previous marriage.
Indeed, Gordon described Lange as being born into a time in when “women were expected to be wives and mothers, and only that.”
Lange and Dixon would divorce after around fifteen years of marriage, as divorce was a taboo in those days. The year Lange divorced Dixon, she found a much kinder husband in Paul Schuster Taylor, who was with her for the rest of her life.
During the Great Depression, and in a fascinating and ironic twist, the subjects of Lange’s photographs shifted from the wealthy to the impoverished. Now, her subjects were the starving, frustrated folks sleeping on benches. Lange also took many photos of people belonging to groups that were otherwise disparaged or ignored by the common populace, such as African-Americans, rural farmers and Mexican-Americans.
Unfortunately, many of these photos would not be published for decades. Gordon paraphrased one of Lange’s editors who effectively said that America was not ready to see these photos.
Later in her life, Lange worked with the government to photograph the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. She was instructed not to photograph the barbed wire of the camps, nor the armed guards. But most damning, according to Gordon, was the fact that Lange “was not allowed to interact with the internees.”
Lange is reported to have frequently made jokes or small talk with the subjects of her photos in order for them to pose within their nature; this method began when Lange ran the studio in San Francisco.
Eventually, in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, Lange received a letter from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), requesting her mentorship and experiences in social justice.
Lange, fighting a losing battle with cancer, was unable. She died in 1965.
Max Engel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.