Lange was born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. At age 7, she contracted polio, which weakened the muscles in her right leg and left her with a lifelong limp.
“I think it perhaps was the most important thing that happened to me,” Lange said.
She said the limp made her more determined and more empathetic toward others.
As a teen, Lange took up photography during an era when few people had cameras. With no idea how to use one, she got a series of jobs in nearby New York City and learned from other photographers. Working with a portrait photographer taught her how to put people at ease when they posed in front of a lens.
At age 22, Lange moved to San Francisco, where she opened a studio and built a successful business taking portraits of wealthy clients. But in the early 1930s, the Great Depression changed everything. Lange lost a lot of business. Out on the city’s streets, unemployed men waited in long breadlines or at soup kitchens for food handouts. Following her instincts, Lange grabbed her camera one day in 1933 and headed outside.
That wasn’t a simple task.
“I wasn’t accustomed to jostling about in groups of tormented, depressed, and angry men with a camera,” she later said. Plus, Lange used a large, bulky portrait camera called a Graflex. Her small size and her limp made it hard to carry. Yet Lange kept conquering her unease to get back on the street—”to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning,” she told herself.
In the summer of 1934, Paul Taylor, a professor who studied agricultural economies, saw some of her street photographs at a gallery.
“He had never seen photography that had the emotional impact of hers,” says Gordon.
That year, a California government agency hired Taylor to document the conditions of farmworkers. He took Lange with him as a photographer.
She saw firsthand the plight of migrants from Great Plains states who had fled the devastation of the Dust Bowl. During the 1930s, some 200,000 of them streamed into California looking for work. Jobs on farms were scarce and paid hardly anything. Then when the picking season was over, the migrants had to move on again in search of work, in an endless cycle.
Lange’s years of making people comfortable in front of a camera served her well.
“I think that she deliberately emphasized her limp and her slowness,” says Gordon.
Lange used the time to talk to her subjects. Getting them to relax into what she called their “natural body language” allowed them to let down their guard, Gordon says. The resulting images offered revealing glimpses into people’s everyday lives.