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Dorothea Lange: A Life Without Limits,
This review is from: Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (Hardcover)
Review of "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits" by Linda Gordon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2009, 536 pp.
By Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
Dorothea Lange's photography during the Depression defined the discipline of Documentary Photography - photography devoted to forth-rightly examining the human condition, often in the interest of righting great wrongs.
In an excellent new biography by historian Linda Gordon, Lange's experience in photographing the poor and the downtrodden was more than a bit ironic. She herself was raised in an upper class family on the East Coast. She announced her intention to take up photography as a career apparently without ever having even handled a camera, much less taken any photographs. Her career started by making portraits of wealthy San Franciscans in a studio far from dusty farms and back roads.
Lange was a hard-working self-starter, and she first attached herself to several expert photographers from whom she learned her trade. Gordon skillfully pairs Lange's career with the historic times in which she worked: Her portrait work of the elite citizens of San Francisco during the 20's is coupled with the bohemian lifestyle she adopted with many artists, including her first husband, Western painter Maynard Dixon. Her pairing with economist and agricultural reformer Paul Taylor, whom she would soon marry, when the Depression in the 30's swept away her and Dixon's art patrons and left thousands unemployed, especially migrant farm workers who were already exploited and in poverty. Her stubborn documenting of the locking away of innocent Japanese Americans during WWII hysteria, which the Army originally hired her to do and then buried the photos away from public view. (Gordon published many of these photos in 2006 in her book "Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Image of Japanese American Internment" with Gary Okihiro.) Her photography style was especially important, shunning artifice and camera tricks, as well as other artistic trends, to show people in a direct manner, as a chronicle of both adversity and human resilience.
Her photos of beautiful but pensive mothers and their families in canvas tents, broken down shacks and old cars piled with meager belongings, facing the uncertain future of farming without land of their own in bleak landscapes, are considered deeply symbolic of the economic damage done to a nation. But there was also strength shown in such photographs - the strength of the human character against the odds. Lange's photographs of migrant mothers are among the best known photographs in the world, and symbolize the 1930's and its impact.
Indeed, her expert portraits led to a change in the workings of the federal Farm Security Administration's (FSA) photography project that brought on Lange as a photographer during the Depression. The original intent of the photography project, as Gordon points out, was to document the value of the FSA and President Roosevelt's New Deal, so the agency's leaders wanted photos of new tractors, contour plowing, and other examples of things supplied farmers demonstrating the government's success in changing farming practices and helping farmers cope. But Lange's incredible and moving portraits of farm families changed the FSA photography direction, as its leaders recognized that Lange's photos of people, rather than things, had much more impact on Congress and the public.
But, as Gordon notes in her canny historical analysis, the FSA programs were largely failures, as big agriculture, the US Department of Agriculture, and Congress balked at widespread changes in practices promoted by the FSA - agricultural reform is still a distant dream, and it took Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union in the 1960's and 70's to marginally better the plight of migrant farmers. Lange would not live long enough to see the success of 60's empowerment movements (Lange died in 1965 of cancer), although she was supportive and appreciative of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and the role of photography in that historic campaign.
Lange suffered several tragedies early in life - first a bout with polio that would leave her with a limp, and later the abandonment by her father, whom she would not speak about or meet ever again. (Gordon notes that Lange's mother may well have been in touch with her husband in later years and did not appear to share her daughter's anger against him - possibly, Lange's attitude was not altogether fair, albeit her hurt was genuine.) Despite these setbacks, she worked very hard indeed as wife to first Dixon and then Taylor (both of whom shared her passion against injustice), as a mother and home-maker, and as a photographer of genius. Her hard work, sometimes spending twelve hours straight in her darkroom, and extensive travel may well have led to crippling stomach ulcers that pained her. Her polio would act up again in later years, along with other diseases, including malaria and inoperable cancer. For the last twenty years of her life, she was a very sick woman, but still a working photographer and inspiration to many young people that worked with her and were taught by her.
Gordon concludes that Lange was a photographer of democracy - the upholding of the freedom and dignity of minorities, farm workers, Japanese citizens, and many others who formed the subjects of her direct field photography. She died just shortly before her one-person show opened at the New York Museum of Modern Art, but she herself chose the photographs, helped design the exhibit, and wrote the captions for the show. Her portraits of Americans were at last honored as true art.
"Dorothea Lange" reproduces a number of photographs by Lange, including both famous images and others that are virtually unknown. It is an enjoyable and solid read and a fitting tribute to one of America's finest artist with a camera.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 29, 2010 4:59:19 PM PDT
John Thurston says:
This review would have been worthy to publish with the book itself.
Posted on Apr 29, 2014 9:40:19 PM PDT
Teresa Reinhardt says:
Thank you very much for an excellent, balanced review.
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