To say that Dorothea Lange led a full life is an understatement. She led and extraordinary life and it is a fascinating tale. As you will see, she was an amazing person, charming and likeable, but also a person with just as many hardships as the subjects of her work.
Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn’s story begins on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey. She was born at home and was the first born to second generation German emigrants Heinrich and Johanna Nutzhorn. Heinrich and Johanna were still newlyweds, having been married in 1894.
Dorothea’s father, Henry, was an accomplished lawyer having passed the bar in New Jersey in 1891 and immediately opened a practice with a partner. After some time in Hoboken, and after the birth of Dorothea he moved his family to the prestigious town of Wehawken. Joan was every bit the wife of a well to do lawyer, being able to stay home, but yet employing the services of a maid to handle the domestic affairs of the home.
Dorothea also enjoyed the privileges of her father’s work. Both her parent’s valued literature and education (Dorothea Lange A Life Beyond Limits). She was often taken to the theater to watch Shakespeare and was exposed to the art world at a very young age. She would eventually use this exposure to her advantage.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Dorothea was 7. She contracted polio before the polio epidemic struck America and when there was little in which to treat it. She was very fortunate to escape with her life, but not completely unscathed. The disease left her with a twisted right foot and a stiff lower leg. She walked with a limp for the rest of her life, but she refused to allow it to slow her down. Of her ailment she has been quoted as saying, “I think it was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me” (Dorothea Lange A Life Beyond Limit).
Dorothea became a sister in 1901. Her brother Henry Martin Nutzhorn Jr. is her only sibling although her mother admitted to her later in life that she had had an abortion sometime 1n 1910. This was during the time of her parent’s separation and before their divorce.
Her parent’s separation in 1907, when she was 12, was something else that defined who Dorothea was. She was heartbroken and felt that her father had abandoned them. She spoke little of him for the rest of her life and is reported to have not had any contact with him after the divorce.
Dorothea, after moving back to Hoboken and into her grandmother’s home, began school in New York City. It was there that she met Florence (Fronsie) Ahlstrom with whom she would have a life long friendship with. Dorothea and Fronsie were rebellious teens and much to her mother’s dislike, she barely passed her classes. She preferred to wonder the streets of New York to observe everything.
After dropping out of the New York College for the Training of Teachers, she decided to forge her own education and went to work for the prestigious photographer Arnold Genthe. This would be the beginning of her photographic career. It was Genthe who gave Dorothea her first camera, a used Graflax.
Dorothea worked for 7 other photographers between Genthe and the time she left for San Francisco. They taught her many tricks of the trade and gave her the confidence she needed to make it in the world. Her last boss was Charles H. Davis, a photographer of celebrities. It was Davis that taught her how to pose human models.
She also did a stint at Columbia University during this time, studying photography under Charles H. White. This too was short lived. Dorothea from then on described herself as a ‘self learner’ and eagerly took in information from anyone that was willing to teach her.
Dorothea ended up in San Francisco and it was a bit of a tale of it’s own. It started as a trip around the world with her friend Fronsie. During this time it was common...