Famous Person: Dorothea Lange

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Grade Level: 5th & 6th

Author: Molly Buck

Table of Contents



Dorothea Lange came from a unique background and contributed unique gifts to our society. She dared to rebel against the cultural norms of women in the early nineteen hundreds. She did not want to become a teacher, secretary, librarian, or nurse like every other women was expected to. She had a dream to become a photographer. Because of her dream she became one of the first female documentary photographers whose photos of The Great Depression and other eras in history are known world wide.

Dorothea was born on May 25, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey to Henry Martin Nutzhorn and Joan Lange Nutzhorn. When Dorothea was only seven years old she was stricken with polio. Other children often called her "limpy" because one leg was smaller than the other. Her mother was embarrassed because of her limp, and would tell her to try to straighten up when walking near her mother's friends. Despite the teasing from her peers and her mother's embarrassment, Dorothea later states that having polio was the most important thing that happened in her life.

Dorothea loved her father. They often read Shakespeare together. But this relationship did not last. In 1907 her father abandoned their family. Dorothea did not see him for the rest of her life. Eventually she replaced her father's last name of Nutzhorn with her mother's maiden name Lange.

When Dorothea's father left the family, her mother Joan had to find a job to support Dorothea and her brother. She found a position as a librarian in New York City. Dorothea, her brother, and mother had to move in with Joan's mother Sophie to be closer to the library. Living with her grandmother was less than an ideal circumstance. Her grandmother Sophie was often drunk and would hit Dorothea. As one can imagine Dorothea did not like being home at night especially since her mother worked some nights at the library. Dorothea didn't like school either. Both during the night and the day she would roam the streets and museums by herself or with her friend Fronsie. She learned to avoid direct eye contact with people, walk over drunks, and move unnoticed through people. These skills were an asset later in her photography career.

In June of 1913 Dorothea graduated from Wadleigh High School in Harlem. Her mother wanted her to become a teacher. In order to please her mother she enrolled in the New York Training School for Teachers. Dorothea didn't want to be a teacher, she wanted to start a photography career. There were a few problems though. She was a woman, didn't have a camera, and had never taken a photograph. One day she was walking by a photography shop. It happened to be the famous photographer Arnold Genthe's shop. For no particular reason he decided to give her a job. This launched her career as a photographer. It was here that she became well known as a portrait photographer. She began taking a photography course at Columbia State. She built her first darkroom made from a chicken coop and put it behind her house.

In January 1918 Dorothea and her friend Fronsie Ahlstrom moved to San Francisco. Dorothea opened her own portrait studio and joined a camera club. Through this camera club she met her first husband Maynard Dixon a western wilderness painter. On March 21, 1920 they were married. They began traveling together. He would paint and she would take photographs of the western wilderness. Maynard and Dorothea had two sons together. Daniel Rhoades was born in 1925 and her son John Eaglefeather was born in 1929.

During the summer of 1929 Dorothea has what she called a spiritual awakening. She says "There I was, sitting on a big rock-and right in the middle of it, with the thunder bursting and the wind whistling, it came to me that what I had to do was to take pictures and concentrate upon people, only people, all kinds of people, people who paid me and people who didn't." (Turner, )

The stock market crashed in the fall of 1929. This affected Dorothea and Maynard's work. No one had any money for the simple things in life. How could anyone afford photographs and paintings. Dorothea, Maynard, and their two sons moved to Taos, New Mexico to live with a group of artists at the beginning of the Great Depression. Their sons did not stay with them long. Dorothea and Maynard sent their boys to boarding school. This way Dorothea and Maynard could concentrate more on their careers. In 1933 Dorothea's photographs were exhibited in Willard Van Dyke's studio in Oakland California. Here she met Paul Taylor, an economics professor and writer. Paul was impressed with Dorothea's photographs. They began to work together. Dorothea would take photographs and Paul would write articles. Their reports help start what is called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

By this time Dorothea's marriage to Maynard was getting difficult. In October of 1935 they divorced. Only a couple of months later Dorothea and Paul Taylor married. Paul and Dorothea continued to work together. One of her most famous photographs the "Migrant Mother" was taken during this time. She took this picture in a Pea Picker Farm where men, women, and children were starving to death. This photograph was published in the San Francisco news and spread throughout the whole country. Her photograph and Paul's writings caught the attention of Washington D.C. As a result, twenty-thousand pounds of food were sent out to the starving people of the Pea Picker Farm. During this time she also took the photographs "Hoe Culture", "Ex-slave with Long Memory", "Six Tenant Farmers without Farms", "Family on the Road", and "Woman of the High Plains".

In 1940 America's attention had shifted from the Great Depression to preparation for World War II. They stopped working for the Farm Security Administration and moved from San Francisco to Berkeley, California. At this time Dorothea was hired by the WRA the War Relocation Authority. She was to take photographs of the Japanese-Americans movement to the refugee camps. One photo in particular is called "Indivisible".

From 1942 to 1957 Dorothea traveled with her son Daniel who had become a writer. They worked together on projects just like Dorothea and her husband Paul had done previously. During this time she took the photos "Gunlock" and "Leslie Dixon Reading at Steep Ravine".

Paul and Dorothea started traveling again in 1958 until 1962. They traveled to Asia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Egypt. The pictures "Children", "Two Women", and "Andrew" are examples of her photographs during this time.

In August of 1965 Dorothea was diagnosed with cancer. During the last part of her years she managed to have exhibitions in Boston and Europe. She completed her pictures for the book The American Country Woman. She also worked on two films for the National Educational Television and Radio Center. Dorothea died on October 11, 1965 at age 70. A few months later in January of 1966 her photographs were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Dorothea is known as one of the first women documentary photographers and her work remains popular all over the world. She was able to touch many peoples lives for the better. She is a perfect example to everyone that we are not limited by our circumstances. If we want something bad enough, we can have it!!!


Meltzer, Milton (1985). Dorothea Lange Life Through the Camera. New York, NY: Viking Kestrel.

Turner, Robyn Montana (1994). Dorothea Lange. Little Brown and Company.


Time Allotment: Approximately 8 school days

Resources Needed:


1. Mini-Lecture: Using the background information and time line, give a mini-lecture about Dorothea's life. Show how her childhood influenced her life. Talk about how decisions and experiences influenced the outcome of her life.

2. Time line: Read Dorothea's time line. Remind them that Dorothea had a goal to become a photographer. Point out the events in her life that helped her to achieve her goal. Have the students do a time line for their lives. They will write the important events that have happened to them thus far. Ask them to think of a goal they have. Have them imagine what events might lead up to their goal. The students will continue writing what they think will happen to them for the rest of their lives.

3. Geography Find: Have the students locate some of the places where Dorothea lived or traveled to take photographs. Here are the places: Hoboken, Germany; Hoboken, NJ; New York, NY; San Francisco, CA; Taos, NM; Oakland, CA; Anniston, AL; Hardaman County, TX; Oklahoma; Texas Panhandle; Utah; Asia; Venezuela; Ecuador; Egypt; Korea; Nepal; and Boston,MA. (Optional-they can figure distances and numbers of states and countries visited)

4. Carousel Brainstorming: Put some of Dorothea's pictures on the wall next to a large piece of paper for brainstorming. Divide the class into equal groups. Have them rotate to each picture and write words that describe the picture. Give them each a different colored magic marker so their attributions to the group can be easily assessed. Wait until each group has at least two words written down and then tell them to rotate to the next picture. At the end of the brainstorming session have one student from each group read the words on the poster.

5. Guest Speaker: Bring in a photographer of people. Have the photographer discuss some basic aspects of a 35 mm camera, and some techniques for taking pictures of people. The remainder of the time should be spent in questions and answers.

6. Picture Taking Activity: The students will each take pictures of people. Ask parents if they would be able to donate any film for the project. Hopefully the school will have access to a 35 mm camera. Draw numbers out of a hat to see who gets to take the camera first. This student will take two pictures of the person that they wish to photograph either at home or school. They will bring the camera in the next day and pass it on to the next student. Make sure you keep a master list of the how many pictures each student took so the pictures will go to the correct student when the photographs have been developed.

7. Field Trip: Visit a local high school or college photography class, or a photography business. Take a tour of the developing room to find out more of what Dorothea did for a living and what is involved in the developing process. (The high school, college, or business might develop their pictures for free).

8. Poems: The students will each write a poem for one of the photographs that they took. They can write the poem in whatever format they wish.