by Katie Walker
The work of Dorothea Lange demonstrates the versatile role of photography as both a medium for artistic expression and a means for social commentary and public awareness. As the bulk of her work was done during the Depression and post-war eras, the things she produced as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration were incredibly timely—most often known for photographing the American poor in their time of greatest social and economic plight.
Lange's camera was her constant companion during ventures to the American west, where she used her skills as a photographer to allow artistic expression and journalism to work hand in hand. This combination of artistry and journalistic skill bolstered her ability to have an effect on the viewer, especially as she took advantage of the development of modern photographic techniques and style.
Whether through carefully utilized angles or somewhat intrusive closeness to her subjects, Lange tactfully created jarring subjects of the people she encountered, which demonstrated an ironic but revolutionary way of portraying America's every-day citizen.
Few times before had artists emphasized the raw vulnerability of their subjects. In the case of Lange’s work, the tenacious ability to survive and work during such a dire time became a central, and even heroic characteristic of her subjects. These themes cause many to compare Lange's work to that of Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, and other documentary photographers in style and purpose. She also collaborated with Ansel Adams, a fellow photographer who was similarly active in capturing western life in skilled and informative ways, which included their somewhat controversial series depicting the life and residents of the small LDS town of St. George, Utah.
Lange's and Adams' production of photos inside Japanese-American intern camps is another example of their impactful work in war-time America. The balancing scale of the artistic versus propagandist value in what Lange produced can be tipped at times, causing her to be significant figures in both the historical and artistic realms. In hindsight, photographers like Lange have demonstrated the ability to master both in a lifetime.