Dorothea did not do well in high school; as a matter of fact, she just barely graduated. In thinking about what she would do next, she knew she wanted to be a photographer. She had never
a picture, but she had had years of looking at life with a photographer's eye, and she knew she had both the passion and the potential to pursue this career. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher, as she thought it was the best way to ensure a living if her daughter ever needed to make one on her own. This was in 1914, and only one out of every four women worked outside of the home then. By way of comparison, a little over twice as many women work outside of the home now.
Aside from becoming a servant, teaching was the next most common job available. Dorothea did enroll in teaching school, but she committed to learning photography in her free time. She worked for different photography studios, and came by most of her photographic education on the job that way. She switched to pursuing photography full time after her first day of student teaching. She could not control her class of fifth-graders, and they all climbed out the window to get to the playground. That day she convinced her mother that she was not cut out for teaching, quit school, and bought her first camera. She started her career as a portrait photographer, using people she knew as subjects. With the help of a traveling photographer whom she befriended, she turned an unused chicken coop in her back yard into a darkroom. She let him use it, and he taught her how to use it.
In 1918, Dorothea and the only real friend she made in high school set out together to travel around the world; they ended up in San Francisco, where she immediately got a job in a photo-developing center similar to those located in CVS or Walgreens (except back then things weren't automated as they often are today.). There was a large, supportive community of artists in San Francisco, called bohemians; she joined a camera club there and was quickly welcomed into that community. Within six months she was able to open her own portrait studio, quickly becoming a favorite of San Francisco's wealthiest. Every day Lange would host an afternoon tea at her studio where her bohemian artist friends would gather for enthusiastic discussions of art and photography, with the latest jazz record playing in the background.
In 1920, Dorothea fell in love with and married the well-known painter of western landscapes, Maynard Dixon. Their marriage would become troubled as both Lange and Dixon had artist's souls, but only Dixon could indulge his easily. He would leave for weeks or months at a time on painting expeditions, and she would be stuck at home keeping house and tending to family, trying to stick her photography in whenever she could. She would send their children to spend time with various friends and family members in an effort to get work done, but it was not easy. (They had two children together. Dan was born in 1925, and John was born in 1928. Dixon also had a daughter from a previous marriage, named Consie, born in 1910.) Then the Great Depression hit and made it more and more difficult for them to sell their work. At this time it was considerably more difficult for a female photographer to get work than it was for a male one, and she was faced with the inequality of the male and female artist every day in her marriage. In the winter of 1932-33, to save money, Lange and Dixon each went to live in their separate studios, and they sent their children to boarding school. Lange finally had some time, space, and freedom to pursue her photography. She had discovered that she was no longer satisfied photographing people who paid her to do so, and her mind for the first time turned to the idea of photography for social benefit and change.
She felt compelled to go into the streets, to photograph the devastation that the Great Depression was leaving in its wake. She saw the capacity for photography to document the human condition and to potentially inspire change. She went down the street from her studio to a soup kitchen run by a wealthy woman named Lois Jordan who, with little or no outside funding, would feed more than one million hungry men over a three year period during the Depression; she was known as the White Angel. It is at this soup kitchen that the moving photograph
White Angel Bread Line
In 1934 she had a small art exhibit of her documentary photographs. At this show was Paul Taylor, a college professor also studying the social effects of the Great Depression. He was nationally known for his studies on rural poverty and migratory workers, and he thought Lange's photographs would perfectly complement his written reports on the subject. They set out together to record the effects of the Depression on the rural populations of the country, most notably, the migration of drought refuges to California. These reports would lead Taylor and Lange to become part of the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration, to help struggling rural populations throughout the United States. Her most famous photograph,
, would be taken while working for the FSA. The reports would later be published in a book entitled "An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion." Lange was a pioneer in the field of documentary photography, and this at a time when women did not have the same professional opportunities as they do now.
Classroom Implementation Opportunities
Students can explore the idea of practicality of career versus love of career. They can brainstorm a career they might like to have someday of which they think their parents might not approve. Then they can get into pairs, briefly share and explain their chosen careers, and partners can take turns role-playing a conversation between parent and child, as if the child had just revealed the career choice to the parent. Parent role-players would suggest a more "practical" career, and students would reflect on the experience in their journals. It would be interesting to have the partner role-play the child, so that the child role-plays his/her parent, though any combination of role-playing could take place. Lange's photographs of homeless migrant workers inspired John Ford's 1940 film version of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel
The Grapes of Wrath
, so any exploration of those works can certainly supplement this unit. I would like students to consider the idea of knowing that they would love to do something without having had the opportunity to do it yet. I'd like to engage them in thinking about why they think they would enjoy the activity, if it would be a hobby or a possible career, where they may have heard of it, and what three steps could be taken to better inform or prepare them in this activity. I have included in Appendix II a graphic organizer for this activity.
Comprehension Question Samples
· What does the word
mean to you? (A5)
· Why do you think Lois Jordan (the White Angel) chose to feed so many people? Think of someone who reminds you of Lois Jordan in some way. Explain why the two people are similar, using information from class discussion and personal experience. (B2, C1)