Author(s): Mark Durden
It was during the depth of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s, when at least 14 million people were out of work in the USA, that Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965) first ventured out on the streets with her camera. In 1935 a report on migrant workers, illustrated with Lange's photographs, came to the attention of Roy Stryker and in response he invited Lange to become a member of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic unit. Like Stryker, Lange believed that photography was a tool of political action, and this was no more apparent then when the federal government responded to the starvation crisis shortly after the San Francisco News received Lange's photographs - it quickly supplied 20,000 pounds of food to feed hungry migrants at the camps. Lange's championing of black migrants can be seen in the photograph 'Plantation Overseer and his Field Hands' of 1936, in which Lange captured the image of a man who exemplified the racist, exploitative and un-democratic attitudes that were rife in Southern plantation life. The evidence of racism revealed in this photograph - and others - is countered by Lange's many dignifying portraits of black subjects. When the bitter years of the Depression were overtaken by the advent of World War II, she continued to demonstrate her opposition to the poor treatment of migrants by opposing the relocation of 110,000 American Japanese to internment camps. She recorded the evacuation in Northern California after being assigned by the War Relocation Authority. In 1955, after a bout of ill health, Lange continued to work on contemporary social issues, namely a photo-essay for Life magazine, a sensitive study of the work of a Yugoslav-American public defender, representing those who could not afford to pay their own legal expenses. Lange watched and photographed him on and off for a year, catching the reflective moments of his defendants' body language. Lange was the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship (1941) and was placed on the Honour Roll of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1963. She was honoured with major solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1960) and the Oakland Art Museum (1960) and she began preparing a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York shortly before she died in 1965.
Mark Durden is a writer, artist and lecturer. He has written extensively on photography and contemporary art and co-authored the book Variable Capital (2007). He is also part of the artists' group, 'Common Culture' and currently Professor of Photography at University of Wales, Newport.