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“I’ve never not been sure that I was a photographer,” Dorothea Lange said, “any more than you would not be sure that you were yourself.”

In her long photography career, Lange would create some of the most iconic portraits of the 20th century. Her unique ability to discover and reveal the character and resilience of her subjects is the focus of our exhibition Dorothea Lange: Seeing People.

Lange also used her work to document injustice. She believed that photography could drive social change.


Dorothea Lange, Grandfather and Grandchildren Awaiting Evacuation Bus, Hayward, California, 1942, gelatin silver print, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.) 2005.27.4215

1. She was determined to document the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II

In 1941, Lange was the first woman to receive a prestigious fellowship to make “documentary photographs of the American social scene, particularly in rural communities.” But in February 1942, Lange asked for a deferment.

She wanted to focus on documenting the relocation of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals. Forced from their homes and businesses, they were tagged and held in “relocation centers,” also called incarceration camps. Lange photographed at a camp in Manzanar, California, where she created a record of the unjust treatment of Japanese American citizens.


Dorothea Lange, Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at a War Relocation Authority center, Manzanar, California, July 1942, gelatin silver print, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.191.126

2. Her work was censored

It was the War Relocation Authority (WRA) that hired Lange to document the forced relocation of Japanese Americans. She also encountered obstacles from US military censors and WRA staff. “US Army Major Beasley actually wrote ‘Impounded’ across some of the prints (luckily, not on the negatives),” according to historian Linda Gordon.

At the time when they could have influenced public opinion, Lange’s pictures were suppressed. None were published until the war was over. In June 1946, they were placed in the National Archives. (Today digital scans are freely accessible.) Lange’s work helps us better understand the human tragedy of the incarceration.


Dorothea Lange, Untitled (La Estrellita, "Spanish" Dancer), San Francisco, California, 1919, gelatin silver print, Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Estrellita Jones, © The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor.

3. She got her start working with celebrities and socialites

Lange’s first photography job was in the New York studio of celebrity portrait photographer Arnold Genthe. He catered to early 20th-century influencers including tycoons, politicians, and dancers. Lange learned about lighting portraits, printing proofs from negatives, and manually retouching photographs. 

She also watched Genthe interacting with his wealthy and famous subjects. “I found out something there: that you can photograph what you are really involved with,” Lange said. Being close to their subjects gives photographers insights that they can apply in their work. A few apprenticeships followed. Lange developed a fine sense of lighting, atmosphere, and composition that she carried with her when she eventually began to photograph in the world outside.


Gertrude L. Brown, Clarence H. White [seated center], Gertrude Käsebier [seated right], and students, Summer School of Photography, Five Islands, Maine, c. 1913, platinum print. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

4. Lange studied with a famous photographer—but didn’t do her homework

Two years after high school, Lange took a class with renowned photographer Clarence H. White. White was a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession, a group of American photographers who considered the medium a fine art. But Lange never did the assignments. At the time, she recalled, she was more interested in learning from White in the classroom than in making her own photographs.


More than a dozen men crowded together fill this vertical black and white photograph. All wear snap-brim hats, fedoras, or caps, and all but two away from us. One man in the crowd looks to our right. The other is closest to us. He rests his forearms on a wooden railing, a metal cup tucked between his elbows. His hands are tightly clasped, and his worn, stained fedora is low over his lined face. His thin lips are set and he has a grizzled white beard. A partially legible sign in the back reads

Dorothea Lange, White Angel breadline, San Francisco, California, 1933, gelatin silver print, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.191.4

5. She believed photography could create social change

Lange opened her own portrait studio in San Francisco in 1919. She started out photographing members of high society. But with the 1929 stock market crash, much of that work dried up. “Surrounded by evidence of the Depression,” in her words, she began to reconsider her work.

Lange took her camera to the streets of San Francisco and started photographing people who were openly struggling. They were without homes, hungry, exhausted. She dedicated much of the rest of her career to subjects in vulnerable or dangerous situations. By exposing the injustice and abuse she witnessed, Lange hoped to relieve them.


Dorothea Lange, Child Living in Oklahoma City Shacktown, August 1936, gelatin silver print, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

6. She considered polio the “most important thing” that happened to her

As a young child, Lange contracted polio. (The vaccine wouldn’t be created for many decades.) She recovered but was left with a limp in her right leg. It “formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me,” Lange said. Facing a serious illness that permanently affected her—and made her different from most other kids—likely planted seeds of empathy, resilience, and determination. These traits informed Lange’s life and career.

Top image: Unknown photographer, Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California, February 1936, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

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Caroline Weaver


October 27, 2023