Masters of Photography

Being the Unseen Photographer: Lessons from Dorothea Lange.

Dorothea Lange Taylor (b.1895 – d. 1965), was an incredible documentary photographer best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she did work for the War Relocation Authority (WRA).. (Source:

I’m currently reading an interview Dorothea did with Suzanne Riess, conducted during the later part of Dorothea’s life, as she struggled with cancer. The interview was done for the Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley. The interviews took place between October 1960 and August 1961.

Before delving into this interview manuscript, I knew very little about Dorothea Lange, but as I read more and more of the interaction between her and the Interviewer, I see that she was thoughtful, high-spirited with her ideas and opinions, and she had a strong foundation under her feet, growing up in Hoboken and overcoming many difficult obstacles in her life.

When discussing her grandmother and family, who were German immigrants, she said: “In fact I always had a kind of a feeling of ‘What kind of people could these people have been that they came on a ship and then plomped themselves down, right there?’ I mean they didn’t have the gumption to go to Cincinnati or Milwaukee or Chicago. They just stayed right there in Hoboken. They must have been dying to go back! Well, they were pretty spirited people, and they didn’t.” (“Dorothea Lange: THE MAKING OF A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER” [1968], p.3).

I thought that was highly entertaining as I am also of German immigrant ancestry. It was my Grandmother’s family (my mother’s mother), who were Germans, but they were Germans from Russia: Bessarabian Germans. They came to America and entered through the immigration station in Galveston, TX. My Grandmother was 2-years old when her family immigrated to America, and they ended up “plomping” down in St. Francis, Kansas, and then later moved to Lincoln, Nebraska – a far cry from Hoboken.

The main point of this entry, however, is regarding an observation Dorothea Lange made about a skill she acquired as a child and how it helped her later on as a Photographer.

She mentioned that there were two nights a week that she had to walk home alone from her mother’s workplace. Dorothea’s father abandoned the family, so Dorothea’s mother supported the family. She worked as librarian at the New York Public Library on East Broadway in New York. After school, Dorothea went to the library and read books; she called the Library her ‘day home‘.

She was supposed to be studying in the staff room while her mother was working, but instead, she said she read all the books. Makes sense, you’re in a library with a world of knowledge at your fingertips. Forget about the homework and get to the interesting works of literature, right! ;^)

It appears that it was during this time of her life that she took a keen interest in “observing” – especially the people and the neighborhoods that surrounded the library and the route to her home. She said that she was the only “gentile” in a Jewish school: “I could look into all these lives. All of a tradition and a race alien to myself, completely alien, but I watched…I’m aware that I just looked at everything. I can remember the smell of the cooking too, the way they lived. Oh, I had good looks at that, but never set foot myself. Something like a photographic observer. I can see it.” (Id. at 15).

On those two days of the week when her mother worked evenings, Dorothea had to walk home and traverse the wild and dangerous streets of New York by herself, to get back to her home in Hoboken – a rather tough journey for a grade schooler.

In her words, here is her recollection of her journey home, and a skill she learned that no doubt helped make her the great Documentary Photographer that she became:

I went home generally about five o’clock. Now the scenery changes, because I had to walk from Chatham Square to the Christopher Street Ferry, and that’s a walk along the Bowery. And that Bowery suddenly ended at City Hall. There I walked across the park over to Barclay or Christopher Street where that was still another neighborhood.

But there were three worlds there that I had a very intimate acquaintance with, and that Bowery part (I remember how afraid I was each time, never without fear), I thought of it recently when I was in Asia, quite often, because in Asia there are places where you have to look where you step because the sidewalks are unspeakably filthy and you never take it for granted where you walk. Well, on the Bowery I knew how to step over drunken men. I had to do it, you know, and I don’t mean that the streets were littered with drunken men, but it was a very common affair. I knew how to keep an expression of face that would draw no attention, so no one would look at me. I have used that my whole life in photographing. I can turn it on and off. If I don’t want anybody to see me I can make the kind of a face so eyes go off me. Do you know what I mean? There’s a self-protective thing you can do. I learned that as a child in the Bowery. So none of these drunks’ eyes would light on me. I was never obviously there. And you can see what equipment that was for anyone who later found herself doing the kind of work I do, or maybe it took me into it.” (Id. at 15 and 16).

And then she goes on and says that she did all of this as a physically disabled kid: A result of having Polio as a child. She always walked with a limp.

Dorothea Lange was a really amazing person. I find it totally fascinating her keen sense of observation and the skill of being “Unseen” helped her tremendously, later on, as a Documentary Photographer. It became, as she recalled, “equipment” so she could more easily enter the lives of strangers and photograph them.

Dancer,smallerAs I read more of the interview with Dorothea Lange, I may mention other interesting points that can help us to become better Photographers. Perhaps being more understanding, more compassionate and more observing without being seen, are the true keys to great Documentary and Street Photography.

I know I can learn a lot from Dorothea Lange’s wisdoms on photography. The closest thing I see myself doing in regard to being ‘unseen‘ is when taking performing arts photography. I know from experience, that it is best to stay as inconspicuous as possible – that’s when the best shots develop.


Photography by Nawfal Nur