Think of a famous photographer. Who is it? Ansel Adams? Robert Capa? Henri Cartier-Bresson? Gordon Parks? Someone else famous who leaps to mind (eg, Eisenstaedt, Steichen, Stieglitz, Weston)? What do they have in common? They are all men. Now, name a woman just as talented. Someone in addition to Annie Leibovitz who is famous for photographing famous people.
A bit more difficult? Here’s a name to remember: Dorothea Lange. (see her picture above) Her first success was a portrait studio in Berkeley, California in 1919. When America’s Great Depression was destroying the country and the people in it, she worked for the Federal Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration.
From 1935 to 1939, her pictures “brought the plight of the poor and forgotten to public attention.” Her most famous photo was “Migrant Mother.” (See photo at right) The woman’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, age 32, Mother of 7, living in the family car and a tent. A San Francisco newspaper published a story based on Lange’s travels and included some of her pictures. Government aid was sent to areas she had documented.
In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were forcefully “relocated” to internment camps in the western United States. Ms. Lange photographed people’s removal. They lost their homes, farms, jobs. The United States Army “impounded” her pictures and they were not seen for 50 years. The living conditions of these people were not like Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz. No gas chambers, no firing squads, no mass burials. But the living conditions might best be described as “spartan.” And there were fences and guard towers. No one went “home” until the war was over.
In 1953, Ms. Lange helped her friend, Edward Steichen, recruit photographers for a project (“The Family of Man”) whose photographs would tour the world and, eventually, become a book. You have probably seen it. Ms. Lange sent a recruiting letter: “A Summons to Photographers All Over the World” asking them to “show Man to Man across the world. Here we hope to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirited, passionate, and devoted faith in Man.” The exhibition was seen by 9 million people world wide. A book containing many of the pictures has been seen by many more.
On August 29, 2014, PBS broadcast: “American Masters –Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.” It tells the story of Lange’s life and career. A book of the same name was published in 2013. Ms. Lange died in 1965 at age 70. Many of her pictures are online.