Dorothea Lange, one of the founders of documentary photography, is best known for her Depression Era work for the Farm Security Administration. Her iconic portrait, the Migrant Mother, has been reproduced thousands of times. Her moving images of Midwestern farm families forced off the land by drought and the corporate takeover of farming were used in the struggle to establish government social programs and collective bargaining rights for workers in the thirties. Lange, along with her second husband Paul Taylor, participated directly in fighting for the establishment of clean, safe, affordable housing for the poor. Taylor claimed that the first federal public housing ever built in the United States came about because of their efforts (a Resettlement Administration camp built in Northern California in the thirties.)
Lange and the photographers, writers and activists who worked with her in the thirties, sought to mobilize the public to action on behalf of the dispossessed. Sympathetic depictions of the plight of the Midwestern refugees were used in congressional hearings, educational forums and exhibits that exposed unsafe and unsanitary working and living conditions. Lange and Taylor advocated support for strike activities by unions, the establishment of work cooperatives and an end to discrimination against migrants. Their synthesis of word and image in advocacy broke new artistic and political ground.
In the final years of her life, in the early 1960's, Lange envisioned a project in which teams of photographic artisans would return to the countryside and cities, documenting ordinary life in America. Talking about the conditions in agriculture that she had spent so many years documenting, Lange cited the United Farmworkers as winning the first advances in working conditions for migrant farmers since the movements of the depression. But Lange couldn't establish an institutional forum that hired photographers the way that the Farm Security Administration did. Nor did she live to see the growth of the social movements of the 60's. Nonetheless, she informs, inspires and encourages those who follow her path with volumes of powerful imagery that we can turn to when we seek to look for a mirror of the Americas.