IMAGO/Heritage Images

Dorothea Lange ’s Impact on Documentary Photography

In the world of photography, Dorothea Lange stands tall as a pioneer. Her unique ability to capture the raw human experience during tumultuous times left an indelible mark on the art and craft of photography. She was a beacon of empathy, using her camera to illuminate the stories of those often pushed into the shadows.

Picture this. The Great Depression, that seismic moment in history that shook America to its very core, is in full swing. Amidst this struggle and strife, a woman stands with her camera, intent on telling the story of this turbulent era. This woman is none other than Dorothea Lange, an influential photographer whose empathetic lens captured the heart of America during its most trying times.

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet.”  – Dorothea Lange.


IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | The migrant mother by Dorothea Lange. 1936, California.

Lange was born in 1895 in New Jersey. In the 1920s, she initially started as a portrait photographer, which was common at that time. Although she was known and successful in this type of photography, Lange soon started portraying people in the street instead of in the studio. Life changed dramatically for her after witnessing the homeless, unemployed masses struggling to survive on the city streets during the Great Depression. This experience moved her deeply, inspiring a shift in her career. Lange turned her lens towards documenting the world around her, setting the stage for her groundbreaking work in social documentary photography.

Her most iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother,” captures the essence of her work and the profound influence she had on photography. At a camp full of farmhands whose lives were turned upside down after the pea crop failed, Dorothea Lange captured the image of the migrant mother during the Great Depression in the United States. The picture depicts a mother and the children in her immediate vicinity; her eyes are drained with sorrow and sadness. Through this photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, who was identified years later, became a symbol of the hardship of Americans during the Great Depression.

Lange, who worked for the United States government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), later recalled: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet.” The image is a haunting representation of despair, yet it also portrays resilience in the face of adversity. It was a stark wake-up call to the world about the human suffering caused by the Great Depression.


imago images/AGB Photo
IMAGO / AGB Photo / Dorothea Lange | Scene along Skid Row, Howard Street. February 1937, San Francisco, California.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | Migrant children by Dorothea Lange. 1939, FSA mobile camp, Merrill, Klamath County, Oregon.

Photographing World War II
imago images/Everett Collection

IMAGO / Everett Collection | Young Japanese Americans internees in a baggage inspection line. From the Assembly Center in Turlock, California, they will be sent to a remote internment camp for the duration of World War 2. Photo by Dorothea Lange. May 2, 1942.

Lange’s work extended beyond the Great Depression era. During World War II, she was commissioned by the War Relocation Authority to document the forced evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans. Lange’s photographs documented life in the concentration camps and the raw feelings of those who had been uprooted from their homes and forced to live there.

Her photography was a compelling blend of art and activism. She used her camera not just to document but to provoke thought and stimulate social change. “Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world,” she describes a good photograph and its impact on the world later. Her impact was not confined to her contemporaries but also shaped the future of photojournalism. Lange’s influence is evident in the works of subsequent generations of photographers who strived to expose social injustices.

Throughout her career, Lange insisted on the power of photography to highlight social issues and spark change. Her work is a testament to the profound potential of a single image to evoke emotion, incite action, and immortalize moments in history. Dorothea Lange used her lens as a voice for the voiceless, transforming photography into a tool for social commentary and change.

See IMAGO’s photos from Dorothea Lange here.
imago images/ZUMA Wire

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Circa Images | Wanto Co. Grocery Store owned by Matsuda Family with “I Am An American” Sign hanging in Window, installed on December 8, a day after Japanese Pilots bombed Pearl Harbor, Dorothea Lange, U.S. War Relocation Authority. March 1942, Oakland, USA.

imago images/ZUMA Wire
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Evacuees of Japanese Descent being inoculated as they registered for Evacuation and Assignment to War Relocation Authority Centers for the duration of the War, San Francisco, California, USA. by Dorothea Lange for U.S. War Relocation Authority, April 1942.

imago images/ZUMA Wire
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Evacuees of Japanese Descent being inoculated as they registered for Evacuation and Assignment to War Relocation Authority Centers for the duration of the War, San Francisco, California, USA. by Dorothea Lange for U.S. War Relocation Authority, April 1942.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | FSA emergency camp by Dorothea Lange. Calipatria, California, 1939.

imago images/Historical Views
IMAGO / agefotostock | Cotton Hoer near Clarksdale, by Lange, Dorothea. June 1937, United States.

imago images/ZUMA Wire
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Bob Lemmons, former Slave, became a Cowboy and Rancher, Carizzo Springs, Texas, USA, Dorothea Lange, U.S. Farm Security Administration, August 1936 Carrizo Springs USA.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | Wife and her five month old baby of young tobacco sharecropper by Dorothea Lange. 1939, Granville County, N Carolina.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | This family came to the potato harvest after the FSA camp by Dorothea Lange. 1939, Merrill, Klamath County, Oregon.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | Ex-lumber mill worker clears an eight-acre field by Dorothea Lange. 1939, Boundary County, Idaho.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | A Japanese mother and daughter, agricultural workers near Guadalupe by Dorothea Lange. 1937 California.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | Turpentine workers family by Dorothea Lange. 1936, Cordele, Alabama.

IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | Salvation Army, San Francisco, California, 1939. Creator: Dorothea Lange.

imago images/Everett Collection
IMAGO / Everett Collection | A migratory family living in a trailer in an open field, Arizona, Nov. 1940. They have picked cotton from Amarillo Texas, to Roswell, New Mexico.</figcaption>
IMAGO/Heritage Images
IMAGO / Heritage Images | Japanese relocation, California, 1942. Creator: Dorothea Lange.</figcaption>
imago/Artokoloro
IMAGO / Artokoloro | The Alabama Plow Girl, by Dorothea Lange near Eutaw, Alabama, 1936.


Discover the influential photographers of history in The Game Magazine:

Black History Month: The Photographers Who Documented a Movement

Top Photographers in History: Ansel Adams’ Impact and Legacy

The Impact of Lewis Hine’s Photography, Shining a Light on Child Labour

The Enduring Influence of Margaret Bourke-White