Iconic images that resonate with humanity and intimacy

Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon
Black Woman Working in Field near Eutaw, Alabama
Grandfather and Grandson of Japanese Ancestry at a War Relocation Authority Center, Manzanar, California
Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother)
Maynard and Dan Dixon
Man Walking Down a Country Road from the Kenneally Family Farm, County Clare, Ireland, from The Irish Countryman
Migratory Pea Pickers, Nipomo, California
White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, California
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Dorothea Lange

American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) created some of the most iconic photos of the twentieth century.

For over five decades, Lange documented people from a broad spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds with empathetic images that resonate with humanity and intimacy.

Great Depression in America

Lange is best known for photographing the devasting effects of the Great Depression in America in the 1930s.

White Angel Breadline

One of the first images that garnered her renown is White Angel Breadline. This stark 1933 black-and-white photograph of a solemn-looking man waiting, amongst many others, at a soup kitchen for the unemployed and the destitute in San Francisco is heartbreaking and poignant. 

Migrant Mother

Lange’s photograph, Migrant Mother, taken in 1936, of a weary-looking and worn-out mother with her children, is her most iconic image and is often associated and referenced to the human cost of the Depression era. 

In a retrospective exhibition of over a hundred photographs, Lange’s life, career, and work tackle social issues, including economic disparity, migration, poverty, and racism.

Dorothea Lange: Seeing People

The exhibit Dorothea Lange: Seeing People at the National Gallery of Art in Washington addresses her innovative approaches and how she embodies the humanity of the subjects she depicts.

Postwar Baby Boomers

On display are portraits ranging from her early career as a commercial portrait photographer in San Francisco, dating from 1919, to portraits of indigenous people in Arizona and New Mexico from the 1920s and early 1930s, her extensive coverage of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Japanese Americans during the 1940s, and postwar baby boomers and portraits of people in Ireland, Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, and Venezuela that Lange made in the decade before her death in 1965.

Lange is best known for photographing the devasting effects of the Great Depression in America in the 1930s

Lange’s most pivotal works began when she emerged out of her commercial portrait studio and onto the streets of San Francisco in 1933, documenting the effects of the Great Depression and the plight of the city’s dispossessed men and women, resulting in photographs like White Angel Breadline.

Paul Schuster Taylor

In partnership with economist Paul Schuster Taylor, in 1934, she photographed the plight of draught-starved migrant farmers who had moved to California from the South and Midwest seeking new livelihoods.

Farm Security Administration

From 1935 to 1943, while working for the US Resettlement Administration, Farm Security Administration, and War Relocation Authority, Lange documented the resilience of Depression-era families, farmworkers, rural cooperative communities, migrant camps, and the injustice forced upon Japanese Americans incarcerated in the early days of World War II.

The resulting images put a human face to the devastating economic impact wrought across America by farm tenancy, racism, the legacy of slavery, climate change, and migrations.

Migratory Field Worker Picking Cotton

These portraits, such as Migratory Field Worker Picking Cotton in San Joaquin Valley, California, 1938, sometimes combined with interviews, added a personal element to Lange’s stark pictures of makeshift housing and agricultural fields and cemented her documentary style.

Japanese Americans at Manzanar

During World War II, Lange produced one of her most potent series for the War Relocation Authority, depicting the forced incarceration of California’s Japanese Americans at Manzanar in works such as Grandfather and Grandson of Japanese Ancestry at a War Relocation Authority Center, taken in 1942.

African Americans

She also photographed the shifts in California’s social fabric as its rising economy – sparked by growing defence industries – drew African Americans from the south and women into previously male-dominated and segregated businesses such as shipbuilding.

Life Magazine

In the 1950s, Lange continued to pursue stories about people and their communities for personal projects, as well as for Life Magazine, which include her photographs from Europe, such as Man Walking Down a Country Road from the Kenneally Family Farm, County Clare, Ireland, from The Irish Countryman, taken in 1954.

Lange’s sensitive, humane portraits of often marginalised people galvanised public understanding of critical social problems in the twentieth century.

National Gallery of Art

Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, summarises her life’s work by saying, “Throughout the course of her fifty-year career, Lange created an intensely humanistic body of work that sought to transform how we see and understand people.”

Text by the National Gallery of Art & Cammy Yiu / Photos by Dorothea Lange