Dorothea Lange’s Unforgettable Social Truths

Dorothea Lange in her Bay Area home studio, 1964, as seen in “American Masters – Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.” Photo Credit: ©1964, 2014 Rondal Partridge Archives

You don’t want to miss Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, which premieres this Friday, August 29, on PBS’s American Masters series.

“Migrant Mother,” captioned “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age 32. Nipomo, California.” Pictured: Florence Owens Thompson with three of her children. Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, 1936

Migrant-MotherMigrant-MotherYou probably know Lange’s work from her photograph “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936 at a pea picker’s camp in Nipomo, CA. The photo of a migrant working mother, stranded with children in a tent, became the most famous photograph of the Depression. This documentary by Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, gives us a sense of Lange’s working process in her own words by using vintage footage of Lange’s preparation for a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Taylor shapes the film around Lange’s marriages. In 1920, Lange marries Maynard Dixon, part of the bohemian scene in San Francisco. Twenty years her senior, Dixon, an accomplished painter of the American Southwest, disappears on extended painting trips and leaves Lange caring for their children. His absences, as well as the poverty they endured as artists working in the Depression, take a toll. As Lange’s photography becomes more rooted in social documentary, she bonds with Paul Taylor, an economist at University of California, Berkeley. Taylor gets a job for Lange through Roy Stryker at what would become the Farm Security Administration. Taylor and Lange marry and have a working and personal relationship that supports Lange until her death in 1965.

“Enforcement of Executive Order 9066. Japanese Children Made to Wear Identification Tags,” Hayward, California, 1942, as seen in “American Masters – Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.” Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, 1942

Lange’s project to photograph the round-up and the internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during WWII was particularly difficult. Bay Area Japanese-American families were forced to leave homes and businesses and were sent to the Manzanar relocation camp. She was hired by the government to photograph inside the camp, to show how “humanely” the Japanese Americans were being treated. The U.S. military was horrified with the result and impounded her photographs for being too sympathetic to the internees. Commentaries by scholars, relatives, other photographers and her biographer add to our understanding of the photos throughout the film, and in the instance of Manzanar, Paul Kitagaki, a photographer and descendent of one the families Dorothea photographed, talks about the photos of his interned family that include his dad, a boy at the time who later enlists in the American army to show his patriotism.

Lange had an ability to capture major social changes of the early and mid 20th century and to personalize the experience for the viewer. Her photos succeed as social documents of the times, but go beyond that to remain compelling images stuck in our collective memory.


Susan King is an artist and photographer. She lives in Kentucky.