Dorothy Dehner was born on December 23, 1901 in Cleveland, OH. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother was a passionate suffragette. When Dehner was ten years old her father died and her two aunts Flo and Cora moved in. Cora aroused Dehner's curiosity about foreign culture with extravagant tales of her travels abroad. Cora's tales would later provide the inspiration for Dehner's solo trip to Europe in 1925.
However her second trip to Europe with Smith did more than expose her to the modern and historical art of the continent. While in Europe, Dehner also found reinforcement for her leftist political views. Dehner and Smith both began to link their style of art with their particular political agenda. Many of the Smith's photographs from their travels are of refugee settlements, which were typically epicenters of communist beliefs. The couple acted on this leftward leaning ideology and went on a tour of the Soviet Union in June 1936. In Russia they reunited with Graham and his wife, who focused their attention on the art of Russia and the link between modernist techniques and leftist political messages.