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Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits Hardcover – October 19, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Kirstin DowneyHistorian Linda Gordon presents us with a portrait of the artist as a woman in her fascinating new biography of photographer Dorothea Lange [1895–1965], who captured the images of Americans on the move during the Great Depression.Lange's most famous picture features a migrant woman in California, a refugee from the Dust Bowl. She sits by the side of the road in her lean-to tent, her children draped on her body, hanging from her haggard frame like dead weights, as she stoically looks out into the distance.But the book's central focus is the journey made by the woman standing behind the camera lens. Lange was raised on New York City's Lower East Side and overcame obstacles almost from the start. During her childhood, her parents separated, which Dorothea experienced as a desertion by her father, and a bout of childhood polio left her with a permanent limp. She spotted an opportunity, however, in photography, which was a burgeoning new art field. Dorothea apprenticed herself to a master to learn the craft, giving herself a new identity. She dropped her childhood name, Dorothea Nutzhorn, and adopted her mother's maiden name instead.She further redefined herself after making a westward trek in 1918. Within two years, she emerged as a prosperous society photographer in San Francisco who specialized in portraiture of the city's elite, but that work dried up in the 1930s. Lange shifted course again, becoming a documentary photographer for New Deal programs. From 1935 to 1941, Lange was virtually a migrant worker herself, traveling from place to place, photographing farm workers in fields and primitive labor camps.Gordon wrestles with the issue of how Lange dealt with her role as a woman in a society where family burdens are disproportionately borne by females. Raising a large brood of children and stepchildren, Lange frequently had to put her own work aside to run the household. She also became the primary breadwinner for her first husband, cowboy artist Maynard Dixon, and later supported the career of her second husband, economist and diplomat Paul Taylor, despite her own failing health.Lange privately railed at her family obligations. She shipped the children away when their care conflicted with her schedule or that of her respective husbands. And sometimes she could be cruel: she took revenge on her adolescent stepdaughter, whose father dumped her in Dorothea's lap for months at a time, criticizing and carping at her and photographing her in ways that an adolescent girl would likely have found humiliating.Dorothea Lange's talented eye brings the Great Depression home for us even today, but an observer might suggest that Dorothea, despite her fame and talent, was as much a captive of a woman's societal roles as the migrant mother she so brilliantly photographed. (Oct.)Kirstin Downey is a former staff writer at theWashington Post and author of The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (Doubleday/Talese).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“[A] masterly biography that illustrates the personal and professional struggles and achievements of a woman who was ahead of her time and who remains overshadowed by her work.” (Elle)

“An astonishing and deeply moving biography of Dorothea Lange, America’s foremost social photographer. No other account can rival this one for its engagement or for its dissection of the passions, injuries, and hopes that impelled Lange to challenge the boundaries of gender, race, and family. Linda Gordon writes about her complex subject with sophistication, frankness, and sensitivity. In the process, Gordon demonstrates yet again that she is among the most gifted and probing historians of our time.” (Gary Gerstle, author of American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century)

“As Dorothea Lange’s biographer, Linda Gordon is fortunate that Lange’s private life was as complex―exceptional yet archetypal―as the history she documented in her photographs. The resulting book is superb social history rendered through a remarkable artist and personality.” (Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home)

“Linda Gordon, one of our greatest historians, gives us an engrossing portrait of Dorothea Lange. Every page of this magisterial biography sparkles with insight into Lange’s life, passions, photographic techniques and achievements―and into the lives of the dispossessed farmers, unemployed laborers, and incarcerated Japanese-Americans who were her greatest subjects.” (George Chauncey, author of Gay New York)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1St Edition edition (October 19, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393057305
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393057300
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #649,295 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While I have not completely finished this book, I couldn't wait to write a review. Linda Gordon has done a masterful job of merging history, biography and art in a most enjoyable book. I can't put it down! Admittedly, I've always admired Dorothea Lange's photographs, but I had only an inkling as to how complicated her life was, and how entwined it was with San Francisco's Bohemian art world. Gordon's writing style is a joy and her meticulous research is obvious. Heretofore a reader has had a choice to either enjoy Lange's photographs, or tolerate what was written about her. Gordon's biography of Lange combines Lange's best photos (and many lesser know ones) with a strong, informative, thoroughly enjoyable and fast paced text. I highly recommend this book, especially in conjunction with Lange's photos and her own words in "Daring to Look: Lange's Photos and Field Notes." Thank you Ms. Gordon, a book long overdue!
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Format: 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
Berkeley, CA

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.
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Format: Hardcover
If the subject weren't so compelling, I would not have stayed with it. The childhood parts are heavy on speculation as to how a child of this era with polio or separated parents would have felt. Speculation on why Lange accepted the traditional women's domestic roles is similarly overdone. Staying with this book was well worth it. Linda Gordon shines in her presentation of Lange's work and its place in its era and ours.

Gordon describes not just how these iconic photos were made, but the life of Lange as she made them. Lange took on (or wound up with) responsibilities for her own two children as well as offspring from her two husbands' previous marriages. There are allusions to neglect, but the children seem to be around more than one would expect from such a busy life. By contrast, Lange's life on the road driving from place to place, relating to the people and taking the photos is very well defined.

Gordon clearly demonstrates why Lange can be considered a photographer for democracy. She writes not just of Lange's work but her commitment towards the social reforms that she hoped her images might inspire. Her work with the FSA dovetailed with her second husband's work in agricultural economics. They were independent professionals as well a team.

There is a good description of the mission and vulnerability of the FSA, its role in the New Deal, its political pressures, office politics and how and why Lange was too often the odd man out. Both Lange and the FSA had to accept the racism of the times. Photos of people of color would not be highlighted since the public would not be inclined to accept them. The agency always had to consider the power of the growers to totally eliminate it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is absolutely fascinating and filled with a plethora of information that I didn't know. One would think that the biography of a photographer could be interesting, but this book greatly exceeds "interesting". It is way more than a biography. It is a book of the times and a book that is nearly impossible to put down. One of those books where you let the phone go to voice mail because you don't want to stop reading it! It is accompanied by a trove of photographs, but after reading it, you wish that it included nearly every photo she ever took. You will not only have great appreciation for the legacy that she left but also for the incredibly difficult times that our country and its people went through.
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