Ken Burns Classroom

Dorothea Lange

Ken Burns Film: The Dust Bowl

Collections: The Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)

Subject: Women's History

Grade Level: 6-12

Dorothea Lange on a car
An image of Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange. Source: The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.


Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange is best known for her work during the 1930s with Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration (FSA). Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, Lange studied photography at Columbia University then went on to a successful career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Lange brought her large Graflex camera out of the studio and onto the streets. Her photos of the homeless and unemployed in San Francisco’s breadlines, labor demonstrations, and soup kitchens led to a job with the FSA. From 1935 to 1939, Lange’s arresting FSA images–drawing upon her strength as a portrait photographer–brought the plight of the nation’s poor and forgotten peoples, especially sharecroppers, displaced families, and migrant workers, into the public eye. Her image “Migrant Mother” is arguably the best-known documentary photograph of the 20th century and has become a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity.

Lange’s reports from the field included not just photographs, but the words of the people with whom she’d spoken, quoted directly. “Somethin’ is radical wrong,” one told her; another said, “I don’t believe the President knows what’s happening to us here.” Lange also included her own observations. “They have built homes here out of nothing,” she wrote, referring to the cardboard and plywood “Okievilles” scattered throughout California’s Central Valley. “They have planted trees and flowers. These flimsy shacks represent many a last stand to maintain self-respect.”

In 1941, Lange was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, she gave up the award to take an assignment from the War Relocation Authority, recording the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. Her images of the community were so compelling and so critical of the situation that the Army impounded them; they were seen by no one–including Lange herself–for more than twenty years.

Dorothea Lange died of esophageal cancer in 1965. Though other FSA photographers went on to commercial careers, she remained a documentarian to the end, hoping that–by looking more closely at ourselves–we would come to understand ourselves. In an interview before her death, she summarized the essence of a photograph, as “an act of love.” “That’s the deepest thing behind it,” she reflected. “The audience, the recipient of it, gives that back.”

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