A woman’s burdened life and transcendent photographs
By Shirley Streshinsky
September 1, 2009
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon, W. W. Norton, 560 pp., $35
If photographer Dorothea Lange were alive and shooting today, she might well be heading for the Mendoza family dairy farm in the rolling green hills of Point Reyes, on the California coast, 50 miles from her Berkeley home. Early this year the price of milk plummeted to half what it cost to produce, and the current, third-generation Mendoza had no choice but to send his herd to slaughter. Seven of the eight families who worked his farm joined the ranks of the unemployed; they would have been Lange’s subjects. With Americans once again peering over the economic brink, Lange’s photographs of the human toll taken by the Great Depression of the 1930s are stunningly, perilously relevant.
Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) is an inspired choice around which to build a social history of photography in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the hands of Linda Gordon, a professor of U.S. social and political history at New York University. Gordon’s earlier books looked at the women’s movement of the 1970s, birth control, family violence and child abuse, and single mothers and welfare. Her Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, winner of the Bancroft Prize in 2000, explored family values and racism. Then came Impounded (coauthored with Gary Y. Okihiro), for which she studied Lange’s images of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. That work led Gordon to write this meticulously researched biography about Lange who, by the mid-20th century, had found her way into the top echelon of photographers, in an evolving field that was to have a profound effect on the country in dire times.
“Migrant Mother” is Lange’s iconic image, but few people are familiar with her larger body of work from the Depression years and on the home front during World War II. These photographs, as Gordon says, “enlarged the popular understanding of who Americans were, providing a more democratic visual representation of the nation.”
Even those who know Lange’s photographs are probably not aware of the struggles she endured throughout her lifetime. Gordon remedies that. She records early traumas—a childhood case of polio, which left Dorothea with a limp; a father who abandoned the family for reasons never explained. She follows Lange’s story as it unfolds on two coasts, through two marriages—the first, to Maynard Dixon, a famous western artist 20 years her senior, by whom she had two sons. Lange supported the family financially, even as she tolerated Dixon’s philandering. Her second husband was Paul Taylor, a professor of economics and a crusader for social justice for farm workers. He brought to the marriage his three children, putting Lange in charge of this combined family with five children ages six to 13. How she managed to move beyond the limitations of a demanding domestic life and create an exceptional body of work is at the heart of this book.
Gordon frowns on the demands made by each husband (while admitting it was in keeping with the domestic ethos of the times), making the wife responsible for the children and the household, even while working full time. In fact, both husbands figured largely in Lange’s success. They encouraged her work and shared their own talents and important contacts. Dixon was intensely loyal to her as an artist; Taylor took her into rural America with him, inspired in her a passion for social justice, and loved her completely. He introduced her to Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration, who sent her battalions of other photographers throughout the country to record the Depression years.
Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, into a solidly middle-class family of German background. By the time she graduated from public high school in New York City in 1912, a new wave of photography was under way. The young graduate, having scarcely even touched a camera, announced that she planned to earn a living as a photographer. From that point, her life connected with the major figures in the photography movement, led in New York by Alfred Stieglitz and his student Edward Steichen. Her first job was in the studio of another great pioneer, Arnold Genthe, famous for his photographs of San Francisco–born dancer Isadora Duncan (whom Dorothea idolized) and for his early photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dorothea walked into Genthe’s New York studio and offered to do any kind of work he could offer so that she could learn the craft. When she left, much enlightened, he gave her a Graflex camera.
In 1918 she arrived in San Francisco to begin a new life with a new name, her mother’s. Gordon thinks she changed her name because she was furious with her father for leaving the family, but it is also possible she thought “Lange” a better professional name, less obviously German than Nutzhorn in a country at war. She installed the Graflex in a new portrait studio, which catered to the city’s elite. Lange’s studio was next to a prestigious art gallery; soon she met the charismatic, larger-than-life Dixon, already a force in the art world. Lange was adamant that her portrait photography was a trade, a business, and proved it by supporting the family so her famously gifted husband could practice his art.
The most compelling section of the book begins with part 2, titled “Depression and Renewal.” In 1932 Lange began to venture into the streets of San Francisco to photograph men in soup kitchens and bread lines and missions, moving in close to show the human face of the Depression. Gordon labels Lange a “documentary” photographer rather than a photojournalist, suggesting that with her physical disability (the limp from childhood polio) she was not nimble enough to be a photojournalist. Yet the book’s cover photo shows Lange perched on the roof of an automobile with her heavy camera, having managed to scramble up top to get the height she needed for a shot. Gordon also describes the grueling pace Lange maintained, driving long hours over bad roads, lugging equipment, her eye always scanning the countryside for the telling image. To create fine art, Edward Weston photographed the nude body; Ansel Adams, the mountains. Lange turned her camera on an impoverished young woman and her children in a migrant labor camp to capture what the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” and turned human experience into art. The book is studded with these pictures. Many are in the public domain, thanks to the U.S. government, which employed her as a member of the Farm Security Administration during the Depression and then hired her to make a photographic record of the Japanese-American internment camps.
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits is a satisfying book, thorough and balanced, even if some of the author’s interpretations can be a bit grating. Because Lange’s father left the family when she was young, Gordon tends to label almost every man who entered her life a father figure. More troubling for Gordon is Lange’s practice of “paying virtual strangers” to take care of the children, so she could go off for weeks at a time to make photographs. Because Lange and her close friends are gone, Gordon’s information comes from Lange’s children. One son still feels the pain of being farmed out as a child. Yet jobs were hard to come by in those years, and their mother was being paid. Had the family’s economic survival been the only reason for Lange’s leaving, the children might not have felt so conflicted. The sticking point seems to be that Lange chose to leave. Gordon cannot help but sympathize with the children, even while she admires Lange’s ambition and accomplishments. She has no better answer to the dilemma than do today’s mothers who choose work that requires long absences. Still, the grand sweep of this biography makes it a fine companion to Lange’s photographs.
Shirley Streshinsky is the co-author, with Patricia Klaus, of An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer’s Life.
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