I didn’t realize who Dorothea Lange was, or that I might even recognize any of her work, until I saw the cover of the book Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life. Then I looked at the picture of the worry-worn woman, her tight-lipped smile, her wrinkled forehead and said “Ohhh.” So it is with much more respect and interest than I had initially expected, that I begin to detail the story of her life.
First off: the basics. Dorothea was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her full name was Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn when she was born on May 25th, 1895 in a fancy brownstone house on 1041 Bloomfield Street. As you may have noticed, she isn’t known as Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn today; rather than keep the name of her father, she adopted her mother’s maiden name, Lange. Henry Nutzhorn, Dorothea’s father, worked as a lawyer. The rest of his history is not well documented, but it seemed as though he was successful at his trade. Dorothea’s mother, Joan, on the other hand, has a complete history dating back to when her great grandmother, Otellia sailed over from Germany on the roughest, cheapest passage available. The family was naturally artistic– listing themselves originally as lithographers, and after a few years, as artists. Later on in the family history, Dorothea’s uncles turned out to be musically talented. Joan worked as a librarian for a few years before giving birth to Dorothea, and after that she stopped working outside of the home. After six years, Joan gave birth to Dorothea’s brother: Henry.
From her Grandmother, Sophie Vottler (a woman described by Dorothea as “difficult” but as having hundreds of legends surrounding her) she learned her particular way of cooking, her fascination with the beauty of egg shells and oranges, and that she had a delicate sense of what was right and wrong, pure and not. It is stated in A Photographer’s Life that Sophie is the first person Dorothea mentions when starting her oral history, and from this it is clear that they were close.
When Dorothea turned 7, she came down with polio. This event twisted the rest of her life, just as it twisted her right leg. Not only did she have to live with having a limp and being called “limpy” by her peers, but being disabled also compromised her relationship with her mother. Because Joan acted embarrassed by Dorothea’s limp (a fixation on appearances that Dorothea believed came from their German heritage) the seeds of dislike were planted in the daughter’s heart. Later, when her mother acted proud of her accomplishments she accredited it again to her fixation on appearances– she was only proud because other people had recognized Dorothea’s efforts, not because she actually understood the achievements.
Although Polio can be credited for a rocky mother-daughter relationship, Dorothea also gives it the credit of her success with photography. “My acceptance, finally, of my lameness truly opened gates for me” (Meltzer 7). Having a disability redefined life for her– from the way she saw herself, to the way she saw others, to the way others saw her. It gave her a focus on the “walking lame,” humbled her, embarrassed her, gave her a strength that she otherwise may not have had. And the only concession she made to it was wearing long dresses and pants.
Her relationship with her father is discussed differently: although it is clear that something went wrong between them (due to the fact that she changed her name and hardly spoke of him), the memories she calls up are fond– him teasing her for having read an entire Shakespeare book, taking her to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and letting her sit on his shoulders, and the great respect she had for Woodrow Wilson, because he reminded her of her father. When her mother and father broke up, it cut Dorothea so deeply that she didn’t even want to have to think of her father’s name, and historians are left to wonder what happened and what became of him.
Because of her mother’s well-paying librarian job, Dorothea was not forced to work; rather she attended school. Although she had always considered herself sharp, middle school was a new experience: it was full of knowledge hungry Jews, and the German girl was forced to take learning to a new level in order to keep up. After graduating from middle school, she went on to an all-girls’ high school where she had a miserable time, both socially and academically. Although for the most part formalized education was a bust for Dorothea, a few good things did happen during her time at high school, one being her meeting of Martha Bruere. Bruere was a professor at the school who taught physics, and saved her student from flunking out of high school by upgrading one of her papers to stop her from failing the course. This one act had a great effect on Dorothea: it gave her humanity and sympathy in her dealings with other people.
After high school, Dorothea had only one goal: to become a photographer. She had honed her eye and desire to capture the world in a lens by cutting her classes in order to wander about the city. Her ability to stray off the beaten path is something that she accredits to her success. She believes that had she not taken the time to learn how to feel comfortably anywhere, she never would’ve done as well with photography.
Dorothea’s first photography job was with Arnold Genthe, where she helped to retouch portraits of people as well as doing other small jobs. Although Genthe was a master at photography, Lange says she learned relatively little from him, because he had a very narrow, set way of doing things. It wasn’t until her second job, with Kazanjian, an Armenian photographer that she really learned the tricks of the trade. After Kazanjian, she learned from countless different informal (and formal) teachers, until her interest in human rights led her to where she met her husband, Paul Taylor.