"If you die, you're dead. That's all.": Dorothea Lange's American Country Woman Series

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and raised in New York City (where her single mother worked briefly for The New York Public Library's Chatham Square branch), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) studied photography with established camera artists Arnold Genthe and Clarence White before moving to San Francisco in 1918. There she opened a portrait studio which she operated during her marriage to painter Maynard Dixon and the arrival of two children. In the early years of the Depression, Lange's failing marriage and her empathy for the increasing plight of ordinary working people impelled her to leave her studio and move about the city photographing the economic and social disruption of her fellow citizens. Writing in 1934, documentary filmmaker and Californian Willard Van Dyke noted Lange's "passionate desire to show posterity the mixture of futility and hope, of heroism and stupidity, greatness and banality that are the concomitants of man's struggle forward." The words perfectly describe the moral tone of the remainder of Lange's long and productive career.

In early 1935, the progressive University of California (Berkeley) economist Paul S. Taylor (1895-1984) hired Lange to document self-help cooperatives and migrant labor in the state, and the two married later that year. Also in 1935 Lange joined the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration (RA/FSA) team and helped Roy Stryker formulate his assignments for photographers in the field. Lange's generous and honest effort at capturing the words of her subjects, primarily displaced agricultural workers, gave her photographs even greater value to the agency and resulted in the 1939 book An American Exodus, a collaborative work she produced while working alongside her brilliant social scientist husband.

During World War II, Lange photographed the relocation of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, and in 1945 she recorded the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. Illness kept her from photography for almost a decade until her 1954 collaboration with photographer Ansel Adams, which was followed by travel throughout Asia with Taylor in 1958. In the early 1960s, Lange completed her career-long project on the American Country Woman while her photographs pervaded The Bitter Years, the Museum of Modern Art's 1962 reevaluation of the FSA.


Dorothea Lange. Photographs from the American Country Woman series. Gelatin silver prints, 1931-56.
The New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection.


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