“Sometimes you annihilate yourself. That is something one needs to be able to do” – Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange was no stranger to losing herself in the lives of others. Her photographs capture intimate moments that would otherwise have gone unnoticed had she not set out to document the undocumented.
New Jersey-born Lange documented nationwide struggles, but she also experienced her fair share of setbacks. Her father abandoned the family when she was a child, prompting her to change her surname from Nutzhorn to Lange, her mother’s maiden name, at the age of 12. At the age of 7, Lange contracted polio that left her with a limp, a vestige that she was all too aware of throughout her life. “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” Lange said of her altered gait. “I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”
Lange’s best-known photo was taken during the Great Depression, when Lange visited a camp for seasonal agricultural workers located north of Los Angeles, California. “Migrant Mother” is a striking still of a 32-year-old mother, flanked by her children. Her facial expression conveys the pain of poverty. The Library of Congress states that it is just one of a series of photographs Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in February or March of 1936.
According to Lange, when the photo was taken, the mother had just sold the tires off of her car, and her family was surviving on scavenged vegetables and small birds killed by her children. After “Migrant Mother” was published in a San Francisco paper, the government rushed to provide aid to the camp to prevent starvation.
This image is just one example of how, by essentially losing herself to see the world through other’s eyes, Lange was able to take photos that actually impacted the course of her subject’s lives. In 1960, when reflecting on her visit to the impoverished encampment, Lange said of Thompson “[she] seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.”
Despite the obvious power of “Migrant Mother,” Lange’s work and life produced much more than one stunning image. American Masters’ Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning illuminates the life of the talented photographer and tells the complete story of the woman behind the camera. Tune in for a glimpse into what inspired Lange to document life, not as she saw it, but as others lived it.
“Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning” premieres 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31. View the full film online now.