The Life of Dorothea Lange Essay

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The Life of Dorothea Lange

To say that Dorothea Lange led a full life is an understatement. She led and extraordinary life and it is a fascinating tale. As you will see, she was an amazing person, charming and likeable, but also a person with just as many hardships as the subjects of her work.

Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn’s story begins on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. She was born at home and was the first born to second generation German emigrants Heinrich and Johanna Nutzhorn. Heinrich and Johanna were still newlyweds, having been married in 1894.

Dorothea’s father, Henry, was an accomplished lawyer having passed the bar in New Jersey in 1891 and immediately opened a practice with a partner. After some time in Hoboken, and after the birth of Dorothea he moved his family to the prestigious town of Wehawken. Joan was every bit the wife of a well to do lawyer, being able to stay home, but yet employing the services of a maid to handle the domestic affairs of the home.

Dorothea also enjoyed the privileges of her father’s work. Both her parent’s valued literature and education (Dorothea Lange A Life Beyond Limits). She was often taken to the theater to watch Shakespeare and was exposed to the art world at a very young age. She would eventually use this exposure to her advantage.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Dorothea was 7. She contracted polio before the polio epidemic struck America and when there was little in which to treat it. She was very fortunate to escape with her life, but not completely unscathed. The disease left her with a twisted right foot and a stiff lower leg. She walked with a limp for the rest of her life, but she refused to allow it to slow her down. Of her ailment she has been quoted as saying, “I think it was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me” (Dorothea Lange A Life Beyond Limit).

Dorothea became a sister in 1901. Her brother Henry Martin Nutzhorn Jr. is her only sibling although her mother admitted to her later in life that she had had an abortion sometime 1n 1910. This was during the time of her parent’s separation and before their divorce.

Her parent’s separation in 1907, when she was 12, was something else that defined who Dorothea was. She was heartbroken and felt that her father had abandoned them. She spoke little of him for the rest of her life and is reported to have not had any contact with him after the divorce.

Dorothea, after moving back to Hoboken and into her grandmother’s home, began school in New York City. It was there that she met Florence (Fronsie) Ahlstrom with whom she would have a life long friendship with. Dorothea and Fronsie were rebellious teens and much to her mother’s dislike, she barely passed her classes. She preferred to wonder the streets of New York to observe everything.

After dropping out of the New York College for the Training of Teachers, she decided to forge her own education and went to work for the prestigious photographer Arnold Genthe. This would be the beginning of her photographic career. It was Genthe who gave Dorothea her first camera, a used Graflax.

Dorothea worked for 7 other photographers between Genthe and the time she left for San Francisco. They taught her many tricks of the trade and gave her the confidence she needed to make it in the world. Her last boss was Charles H. Davis, a photographer of celebrities. It was Davis that taught her how to pose human models.

She also did a stint at Columbia University during this time, studying photography under Charles H. White. This too was short lived. Dorothea from then on described herself as a ‘self learner’ and eagerly took in information from anyone that was willing to teach her.

Dorothea ended up in San Francisco and it was a bit of a tale of it’s own. It started as a trip around the world with her friend Fronsie. During this time it was common for young ladies to take trips to Europe before settling down with a husband. Fronsie and Dorothea set their sites just a bit higher.

They set out in early 1918, traveling by ship to New Orleans. From New Orleans they took the South Pacific Railroad to El Paso, Los Angeles, then on to Oakland where they took a ferry to San Francisco in May of 1918. This was as far as they went.

Perhaps it was fate, but while eating breakfast, Fronsie’s purse was picked of all their money. They consulted with the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) where they were staying and were told to go to the Episcopal home for working girls. The girls saw this place as a prison, and often clashed with the strict rules. It wasn’t long before they were kicked out for being ‘disruptive’ to the home.

Undeterred, Dorothea and Fronsie decided to find jobs instead of calling home for assistance. Dorothea found employment at Marsh & Company and Fronsie with Western Union. It was while working at Marsh’s that she was introduced to another life long friend, Imogen Cunningham. Cunningham’s husband, Roi, had met her while buying supplies and introduced them. Even though Imogen and Roi eventually divorced, she and Dorothea became like family and Dorothea would affectionately refer to her children as her own.

Within months of starting her job at Marsh’s, Dorothea had rubbed enough elbows to allow her to open her own studio. She borrowed money form a few gentlemen that she was friendly with and procured a place in Union Square, between Hill Tolerton’s art gallery and Elizabeth Arden’s salon in San Francisco. This was the perfect place for a photographer, as it was in a very upscale part of town.

By 1919 she had clients coming from Oakland, Napa, Palo Alto, Humboldt County and San Jose. She was very well liked and ran a very friendly business. People seemed to be drawn to her, which only increased her business.

Her studio was a popular place. She decorated it in the Bohemian Style. The reception room had long velvet drapes and a black velvet couch that faced the fireplace. She acquired a Russian samovar, and late every afternoon there was tea and teacakes from Elpper’s bakery. By 5 PM the studio was always full of people and they even made dates to meet ‘at the couch’.

Dorothea pretty much lived in her studio. She built a darkroom and workbench in the basement. She even had an open door policy and people entered the studio whenever they liked. She could hear their footsteps from the basement below as they entered.

It was in San Francisco that she met her future husband, Maynard Dixon. She was unconcerned with the 21 years age difference between them and she was drawn to Maynard, just as she was to most of the older men in her life. Some would say that she was still searching for a father figure in her life, but Dorothea never would comment on such things.

Maynard and Dorothea were married on March 21, 1920 with Fronsie and Roi as witnesses. They rented a tiny, one bedroom home that they lived in with Maynard’s daughter from his first marriage, Consie. To escape the gray fog of the bay they painted the floor Indigo blue and dyed the curtains bright yellow.

On May 25, 1925 they welcomed their first son, Daniel, then a second son, John, on June 12, 1928. At this point life was getting harder for her to manage. She had to split her time between the studio and home, and she still tried to lead a full social life. None of which was made any easier by Maynard’s many expeditions to the desert.

Dorothea didn’t begrudge him of his times gone. Once when asked by a reporter how she managed being married to an artist she replied, “Simple. Simple that is, when an artist’s wife accepts the fact that he needs a certain amount of freedom- freedom from the petty, personal things of life” (Restless Spirit The Life And Work of Dorothea Lange).

Once the Great Depression hit in 1929 she and Maynard found it hard to earn a living. They clashed more often and Maynard developed emphysema from his asthma and smoking. In the summer of 1931 they packed up in a used Model A Ford they bought form the San Francisco Police Department and headed for Taos, New Mexico because Maynard wanted to paint.

It was during this time that she took a break from photography. She would take pictures of her boys and sometimes of the people in town, but for the most part her life revolved around her family. But as winter came, Maynard’s lungs worsened, so they decided to go home.

Once back in San Francisco, they decided to live separately moving into their own studios. They sent the boys, ages 7 and 4, to a boarding school. They told their friends it was a bid to save money, instead of renting a house, but many saw this as a trial separation. But soon they decided to reunite and bring their boys home.

In 1934 Dorothea’s documentary photographs were shown at a small gallery in Oakland, California. Economics Professor, Paul Taylor saw them and was very impressed. He called Dorothea and asked if she could do field work with him, which she was eager to do. That fall he took Dorothea, Imogene, and other photographers to the Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA). The UXA was made up of groups of families that had come together to run an old sawmill.

Dorothea dived right into her work. For two days she photographed while Paul talked to the workers. Paul said he admired the way she unobtrusively moved among the workers. Her way of working appealed to him right from the start.

It was during this time that Paul agreed to work for the State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA). He did so on the condition that he could hire a photographer, and the one he wanted was Dorothea. They fudged the paperwork, saying she was a typist, because it wasn’t in the budget for a photographer, but they found a way to tie up all loose ends.

Dorothea arranged for the boys to stay with family and then she and Paul headed for the Nipomo pea fields and then to the Imperial Valley. They were on the road by six in the morning and went all day, often without stopping to eat or rest (Restless Spirit – The Life And Work of Dorothea Lange). They found migrant workers everywhere they went. Undoubtedly, the photographs taken during this job were her greatest collection of work and are what cemented her as one of the most famous female photographers of her era.

It was Paul’s job to interview and Dorothea’s to photograph the workers, but before long, she too was asking questions to which she would report back to Paul with the answers she received. She finally began to keep a notebook of her own that she would jot down what the workers said to her. Though she didn’t know it at the time she was helping to document one of the biggest migrations of people across the US.

Once home, she immediately went to her dark room and printed her pictures. Paul sometimes there with her, waited eagerly to see what she had captured. He would then write his reports. The Taylor-Lange reports were powerfully written, and illustrated with compelling photographs (Restless Spirit – The Life And Work of Dorothea Lange). With the help of these reports SERA received $20,000.00 to build two emergency California migrant camps. The camps had provided running water and hot meals as well as platforms for tents and a large community building.

Paul and Dorothea continued their work throughout the spring. It was at this time that they developed feelings for each other. Dorothea found Paul’s commitment to helping others less fortunate very appealing. She knew during that spring that she and Paul would spend the rest of their lives together.

It was also during this time that Roy Stryker from Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), saw Dorothea’s work. He was so impressed that he put her on his payroll in August of 1935. She joined a number of photographers at the FSA including Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans and Russell Lee. From 1935 through 1943, they photographed across America, compiling more than 270,000 photographs (Restless Spirit – The Life And Work of Dorothea Lange).

Dorothea and Maynard decided to go their separate ways and divorced in November of 1935. On December 6, 1935 Dorothea married Paul in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was no honeymoon as they were out in the field working that same afternoon.

Dorothea now had the time and energy to devote full time commitment to this project, so she closed her studio in San Francisco and she and Paul rented a house in Berkley. The house was bigger to accommodate the bigger family, her two children and Paul’s three. Dorothea ran the house with an iron fist. She expected her rules to be followed with no backtalk. This earned her the nickname ‘Dictator Dot’ by the children.

Dorothea continued to go out in the field, but with Paul’s school schedule, he could not always accompany her. This is when she began taking Roy Partridge, her friend Imogen’s 17-year-old son, out with her as her assistant. He helped build a dark room in the basement of the house in Berkley. Dorothea put great trust in Ron and she had very high expectations of him.

In the summers of 1937, 38, & 39 She and Paul took trips to the South. Lange made her most sensuous FSA photographs in the South (Dorothea Lange – A Life Beyond Limits). Where the migrant workers were always on the move, the South was well rooted. Even in hard times, the people stay. They just had to hope that things would get better.

Things would not be getting better for Dorothea. In the fall of 1939, Stryker told her that her job was in jeopardy. There were huge cut backs on the budget and in January of 1940 she was dropped from the FSA payroll.

There were also personal problems to deal with. Her son Daniel was turning out to be a handful. He became rebellious and defied his mother at every turn. He dropped out of school and at one point stole her camera and sold it for hock so that he could run away.

Dorothea’s next project came in 1942, when the War Relocation Authority asked her to photograph the progress of the relocation of Japanese Americans, also known as Nikkei, to make shift camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She took the job because they needed the money, but she was not happy about it. She felt that it was not right to force these individuals, who had committed no crime, to confinement. She also worried that the government would do the same with anyone of German ancestry, which she undoubtedly had.

Dorothea next teamed up with Ansel Adams in 1944 to photograph the Bay Area shipyards for Fortune magazine. She photographed the workers, the ships, and the children of the worker. Her photographs differed greatly from Adam’s. She preferred to carry her camera into the crowd while he stood behind a tripod on a stand.

It was at this time that she began having stomach problems, and in August of 1945 she had to have her gall bladder removed, which only ending up making her health worse. She had to return to the hospital due to heavy bleeding and was told she would need to return for further surgery. While prepping for the second surgery, she received a phone call from her son Daniel telling her that Maynard had died.

Over the next ten years, she would have to return to the doctor and hospital many times. Things got worse with Daniel and it obviously took its toll on her. Finally Dorothea and Paul decided for both hers and Daniel’s sake, tough love was in order. He was ordered to leave and not to return.

But return he did one rainy night after being homeless and very ill. Dorothea allowed him in and nursed him back to health. This would be the turning point in his life. He cleaned himself up, began writing, and was finally on a straight path that Dorothea could be proud of.

Dorothea died on October 11, 1965 at the age of 70, with her sons and husband beside her. She had finally lost her battle with esophageal cancer. Her work will forever live on as a reminder of what kind of woman she was. She was kind and compassionate, if not a bit bossy and intolerable at times. Strong headed and strong willed. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, and a friend to many. She expected excellence from the people around her, but more so she expected it from herself. She is definitely a woman to be admired.

Works Cited
Abbey, Susannah. My Hero Project. 2010. 6 December 2012 <>. Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange A Life Beyond Limits. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Lange Fellowship. 23 November 2012 <>. Meltzer, Milton. Dorothea Lange A photographer’s Life. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978. Partridge, Elizabeth. Dorothea Lange A Visual Life. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. —. Restless Spirit The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange. The Penguin Group, 1998.

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