Around 1900, Consuelo Kanaga moved with her family to San Francisco, where she worked for the San Francisco Chronicle as a reporter and feature writer (1915–18) and later as a staff photographer (1918–19). At this time, she joined the California Camera Club and befriended the photographers Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange. In 1922 Kanaga moved to New York, where she photographed for the New York American (1922–24). There she met Alfred Stieglitz, whose periodical Camera Work had first spurred her interest in art photography. Returning to San Francisco, she made her living as a society portraitist and met the modernist and documentary photographer Tina Modotti, an early influence. After travels in Europe and North Africa in 1927–28 she returned to in New York, working as a photograph retoucher in the studio of the portrait and commercial photographer Nickolas Muray, and reopened her own portraiture business. She returned to San Francisco in 1929. Four of her photographs were included in the groundbreaking first exhibition of Group f/64 at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco (1932).
After photographing a workers’ strike in San Francisco (1934) Kanaga became increasingly politically active and her photography shifted to overtly political subjects; she began to provide photographs for leftist publications such as New Masses, Labor Defender and Sunday Worker (1935–36). By mid-decade she was back in New York again. In 1938 she joined the Photo League, where she lectured and became a leader of Documentary Group projects, including Neighborhoods of New York. Her work, often focusing on portraits of the disempowered, was featured in several group exhibitions, including “This Is the Photo League” (1948–49) and three shows at the Museum of Modern Art: “In and Out of Focus: A Survey of Today’s Photography,” “50 Photographs by 50 Photographers” (both 1948), and “The Family of Man” (1955).