Born Dorothea Nutzhorn on 26 May 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Lange had a difficult childhood, contracting polio when she was seven. The illness left her right leg and foot weakened and she walked with a noticeable limp for the rest of her life. Speaking later of the illness, Lange described it as “the most important thing that happened to me, it formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.” Although her grandparents had emigrated from Germany in the late 1850s, crossing the Atlantic in steerage, the family quickly became established in the growing middle class and her father, Heinrich Nutzhorn, was a lawyer. Lange showed little interest in school but her parents ensured that she was always surrounded by art and literature. When her parents divorced Lange blamed her father and took her mother’s maiden name which she would use for the rest of her life.
Lange studied photography at Columbia University under Clarence H. White, a significant member of the Photo-Secession group, and then worked as an apprentice in photography studios in San Francisco. Through the 1920s she travelled around the Southwest with her muralist husband Maynard Dixon. With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange spent her time photographing the labour strikes and poverty of her local San Franciscan neighborhood. In 1935, at the end of an unhappy marriage, she divorced Dixon and married Paul Schuster Taylor, a university professor and labour economist. Travelling together extensively, Lange would photograph the hardships of the Depression on rural communities for the on behalf of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), established by the U.S. Agriculture Department, whilst Taylor wrote reports. These images of displaced workers firmly established Lange as a preeminent documentary photographer.
Becoming the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim fellowship in 1940, Lange continued her documentary work through the war, photographing the evacuation of Japanese-American citizens to detention camps after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the inauguration of the United Nations for the Office of War Information. In later life she suffered often from ill health but took on assignments for “Life”, travelling to Utah, Ireland and Death Valley. She died of oesophageal cancer in October 1965. A retrospective exhibition of her photography held at the New York Museum of Modern Art the year after she died described her work as “fundamental to the philosophy of modern documentary”.