American photographer Dorothea Lange is known for her compassionate portraits of people around the world. Her images are among the best known in the history of photography. But how did she create these iconic photographs?
Lange used image selection, framing, and cropping to focus our eye and convey messages about her subjects. Ahead of our exhibition, Dorothea Lange: Seeing People, learn more about her process. Follow Lange’s work from the first click of the shutter to the final prints that hang in the exhibition.
In 1958 Lange accompanied her husband Paul Taylor on a seven-month business trip. Taylor’s work consulting for the Agency for International Development took them to countries throughout Asia, including South Korea.
While they were there, Lange photographed with a new 35-mm camera. Unlike the heavy, large-format cameras she had used before, the smaller 35-mm was ideal for travel photography. The experience exhilarated Lange. “Korea has gotten into the bloodstream,” she wrote.
Lange worked without an agenda, drawing inspiration from the people and scenery around her. While visiting a local school, she photographed a group of excited students in a crowded classroom. Despite the children’s joyful commotion, their tattered clothes hint at the economic downturn that followed the Korean War.
The Contact Sheet
This contact sheet shows Lange’s photographs from that classroom. A contact sheet is the positive print of negative images from a roll of film. These sheets offer insight into how a photographer works—and how they choose images to enlarge and develop in the darkroom.
In the image on the far left of the top row, Lange has photographed the children from above. As we move to the right, we can see that she gradually shifted her camera down, getting closer to the students. From this lower, more direct angle, she photographed the children at eye level. She met their gazes and entered their world. Lange may also have been moving her camera to find an area with less direct light, which would have been easier to photograph. Images on the left side of the contact sheet are very bright, but the light gets dimmer as we move to the right side.
The fourth image from the left is the one that Lange ultimately chose to print. In this picture (seen in the negative below), one of the boys in the front row faces forward. Some photographers might have dismissed this image as flawed—the boy is blinking after all. But Lange may have seen in his face a moment of peace in the otherwise lively scene.
Lange insulated this boy from the bustle of the classroom by dramatically cropping her photograph. She offered the child a moment of stillness, focusing on his calm expression. While she made this print for her 1966 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Lange did this kind of cropping throughout her career. She used it to enhance the emotional impact of her works.
Here, the cropped composition also calls attention to a safety pin at the neckline of the child’s ripped t-shirt. This detail reflects the post-war poverty Lange saw in Korea.
Lange often changed her images many times to experiment with the visual effect of cropping. In this other print of Korean Child, she created a more tightly focused view of the boy’s face, leaving his ears and safety-pinned shirt outside the frame. By limiting the visual information in the composition, Lange creates an idealized portrait of childhood.
Look closely at these two photographs. It seems that the area around the boy’s face was darkened. This was likely done not by Lange herself, but by the San Francisco–based printer she worked with while preparing for her 1966 MoMA retrospective, Irwin Welcher. Welcher may have used a darkroom technique called burning to darken a specific area of the print by exposing it to extra light. This effectively spotlights the boy’s face. Both versions of Korean Child are more luminous and dramatic than the original negative.
Compared to the image of the boy with his classmates, these prints are also darker overall and slightly warmer in tone. This is how Lange wanted her photographs to look for the MoMA retrospective. She asked Welcher to avoid stark black-and-white prints and helped him choose warm-toned paper.
Lange paid attention to every aspect of a photograph’s creation. She was dedicated to producing works that both speak to a specific moment in history and share timeless messages about the human condition. Like so many of Lange’s photographs, these two prints of Korean Child urge us to truly see another person with empathy.
Dorothea Lange: Seeing People
Through some 100 photographs, witness Lange’s unique ability to discover and reveal the character and resilience of those she photographed.
Who is Dorothea Lange? Six Things to Know
Learn how the documentary photographer got her start and why she dedicated her life to the medium.