Dorothea Lange Biography

Dorothea Lange, an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, is best known for her powerful photographs during the Great Depression. Her images captured the struggles of the poor, forgotten, and migrant workers, evoking compassion from the public. Despite facing adversity in her childhood, including polio and abandonment, Lange pursued her passion for photography. She studied at Columbia University and interned with renowned photographers, eventually establishing her own studio in San Francisco. During the Great Depression, Lange focused her lens on the streets, producing iconic works under a government agency. She later documented the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout her career, Lange’s work influenced the evolution of documentary photography and earned her numerous awards posthumously.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 70
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Paul Schuster Taylor, Maynard Dixon (m. 1920⁠ – ⁠1935), father: Heinrich Nutzhorn, mother: Lange
  • Born Country: United States
  • Died on: October 11, 1965
  • Place of death: San Francisco, California, United States
  • Cause of Death: Esophageal Cancer
  • City: Hoboken, New Jersey
  • U.S. State: New Jersey
  • More Facts
  • Education: Columbia University
  • Quotes By Dorothea Lange
  • American Women

Childhood & Early Life

Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn was born on May 26, 1895, in New Jersey, USA, to Heinrich Nutzhorn and Johanna Lange. Her father was a lawyer and she had a younger brother named Martin. At the age of 7, Dorothea contracted polio, which resulted in a weak right leg and a permanently altered gait. When she was 12 years old, her parents divorced and she blamed her father for it. In retaliation, she dropped his last name and adopted her mother’s maiden name instead. Although her parents valued both education and art, Dorothea was more interested in pursuing a career in photography. Even before graduating from Wadleigh High School for Girls, she dreamed of becoming a professional photographer. In 1913, she reportedly attended the New York Training School for Teachers but decided to focus on photography instead. Dorothea Lange enrolled at Columbia University in New York and took a photography class taught by the renowned American photographer, Clarence H. White.


Dorothea Lange began her career by taking up apprenticeships at various photography studios in New York, including that of Arnold Genthe, a successful portrait photographer. In 1918, she moved to San Francisco and worked at a photography supply shop as a photograph finisher. During this time, she made connections with influential society people and noted photographers, which eventually helped her establish her own portrait studio. However, she grew tired of taking portraits and decided to shift her focus to capturing the lives of the poor and hungry on the city streets when the Great Depression hit in 1929. Her photographs caught the attention of the government, and she was employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1940. During this period, she and her second husband traveled across California and the South, documenting the squalid living conditions, poverty, and hunger faced by migrant workers. Her photographs gained widespread recognition and were published in newspapers, becoming iconic images of the time. In 1941, she was assigned by the government agency War Relocation Authority (WRA) to cover the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her critical photographs of the internment camps were promptly seized by the army. She also went on contracted assignments for Life magazine to Utah, Death Valley, and Ireland.

Major Works

Dorothea Lange’s 1933 photograph “White Angel Breadline,” which depicted the homeless and unemployed during the Great Depression, became one of her most famous works. Her 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” is also widely recognized and is considered one of the most famous photographs in history.

Awards & Achievements

In 1941, Dorothea Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her achievements in photography. In January 1966, she curated a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, becoming the first female photographer to have a one-person retrospective at the museum. In 2003, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2006, an elementary school in Nipomo, California, was named after her.

Family & Personal Life

In 1920, Dorothea Lange married painter Maynard Dixon, and they had two sons together. However, they divorced in 1935, and she immediately married agricultural economist Paul Taylor. Dorothea Lange lived in Berkeley, California for the rest of her life but faced health issues due to post-polio syndrome and gastric problems. She passed away on October 11, 1965, from esophageal cancer in San Francisco, California.


Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” is said to be the most reproduced photograph in the world. She has been quoted as saying that polio was the most important thing that happened to her as it shaped and guided her life.

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