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Dorothea Lange’s 5 Most Iconic Images

Photo of Dorothea Lange in California. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Dorothea Lange in California. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In January 1918, at 22 years old, photographer set out from New York on a trip around the world—but she didn’t get very far. A San Francisco pickpocket cleaned out her savings, marooning her in the Bay Area. The city would become her home, offering a deep well of inspiration from then on.
It’s funny to think about what might have happened if Lange had left the U.S. as planned. Would she still have become one of the country’s greatest documentarians? Would she have captured the struggles of everyday Americans during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl migration, the mothers straining to nourish their children, and the lapsed, muddied dreams of the American West? What’s certain is that Lange worked tirelessly, from the 1910s until her death in 1965, as a profoundly sensitive portrait photographer and one of the most influential documentarians of the early and mid–20th century. “I will set myself a big problem. I will go there, I will photograph this thing,” she once said, describing her early street photography. “I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning.”
In advance of the Museum of Modern Art’s February 2020 retrospective of Lange’s work—the museum’s first in 50 years—we highlight five of the fearless, deeply empathic artist’s most indelible images.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco (1933)

For Lange, 1933 was a momentous year. While she’d set up a successful portrait practice in San Francisco, catering primarily to moneyed clients, she longed to tell the stories of the Americans she saw outside of her studio, struggling on San Francisco’s streets. “I was aware there was a very large world out there that I had not entered too well, and I decided I’d better,” she later recalled. The Great Depression was in full swing, and countless workers were unemployed and hungry.
Lange witnessed the belly of the crisis at a soup kitchen not far from her photo studio, run by a woman nicknamed White Angel. White Angel Breadline, San Francisco (1933) poignantly captures a middle-aged man waiting in a crowded line outside the kitchen, clinging to an empty cup. His hat is pulled down over his eyes, as if in shame. The experience launched Lange’s documentary practice. By 1934, she’d teamed up with Berkeley social scientist and economics professor Paul Schuster Taylor, mingling her pictures with his writings. The following year, she was hired as one of 11 photographers employed by the U.S. government’s Resettlement Administration. The organization, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA), aimed to document and alleviate the conditions of rural America in the 1930s and early ’40s.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Shot after finishing an assignment in central California for the FSA, Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) is the most iconic image depicting the Great Depression. The image “exists in more formats, prints, and places than (arguably) any other photograph in the world,” as MoMA curator Sarah Hermanson Meister wrote in a 2018 book.
On a trip along the California coast in early March 1936, Lange followed a sign that read “PEA-PICKERS CAMP” and “saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” she later remembered. The resulting photograph captures 32-year-old migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson with her two daughters. Lange cropped the image closely, focusing in on Owens’ furrowed brow, her dirt-dusted fingers, and the tousled hair of her children who huddle against her—details that communicate weariness, affection, and deep human bonds.
The image ran in the San Francisco News with an article titled “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean To This Mother and Her Children?” on March 11, 1936. That same day, the State Relief Administration announced it would deliver food to Nipomo-based workers.
Lange’s friend and fellow photographer encapsulated the motivations behind Lange’s documentary images. “[Her] real interest is in human beings and her urge to photograph is aroused only when human values are concerned,” he said. “Unlike the newspaper reporter, she has no news or editorial policies to direct her movements; it is only her deeply personal sympathies for the unfortunates, the downtrodden, the misfits, among her contemporaries that provide the impetus for her expedition.”

Ex-Slave with Long Memory, Alabama (ca. 1937)

Over the course of the 1930s, Lange took several lengthy road trips on her FSA beat. Some of her most striking images depict sharecroppers in the Deep South. This photo depicts a migrant worker and former slave in Mississippi. The title Lange chose shows her sensitivity to America’s colonial past and the persistent struggle of former slaves, felt long after freedom had been granted.
Similar to much of Lange’s work, this image highlights her subject’s wrinkled face and gnarled hands—features she regularly emphasized to communicate human strife, as well as endurance, resilience, and strength. “Lange’s gaze…showed more mercy but avoided sentimentality by its emphasis on individual personality and complexity,” scholar Linda Gordon wrote of the photographer’s work in the American South in “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits” (2009).

The Road West, New Mexico (1938)

In 1939, Lange gathered many of the images she took while working for the FSA in the now-iconic photo book An American Exodus. The tome fused Lange’s images, Taylor’s words, field notes, and quotes from subjects to form a nuanced, affecting portrait of the Great Depression’s imprint on American life. Lange included this striking image in the book.
A rare published landscape in her oeuvre, it depicts a seemingly endless tract of U.S. 54, the road many Americans used as an escape route from the East to West Coasts during the Depression. But the work they hoped to find in California rarely materialized; the West was no longer the land of promise it once was billed as. Alongside the photo, Lange and Taylor included an impression from someone they met on their journey: “They keep the road hot a goin’ and a comin’…They’ve got roamin’ in their head.”

Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco (1942)

As the pressures of World War II descended on American life, Lange took assignments from a range of government agencies, including in 1940 with the War Relocation Authority. Her task was fraught: to photograph Japanese Americans as they were marshalled into internment camps. The government intended these images to be purely documentary—not for publication—and locked away.
Lange brought her empathetic eye to the subject, focusing on the patriotism, emotions, and resilience of her subjects rather than any baseless wrongdoing. For several days in April 1942, she photographed students at Raphael Weill School, an elementary school in San Francisco’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. Images like Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco (1942) highlight the innocence and allegiance of American children of Japanese descent, some of whom were evacuated, just nine days earlier, in the first wave of internment of San Francisco residents.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.