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We all know Dorothea Lange's iconic photos - the "Migrant Mother" holding her child, the gaunt men forlornly waiting in breadlines - but few know the arc of her extraordinary life. In this sweeping account, historian Linda Gordon charts Lange's journey from polio-ridden child to wife and mother, to San Francisco portrait photographer, to chronicler of the Great Depression and World War II. Gordon uses Lange's life to anchor a moving social history of twentieth-century America, re-creating the bohemian world of ...
We all know Dorothea Lange's iconic photos - the "Migrant Mother" holding her child, the gaunt men forlornly waiting in breadlines - but few know the arc of her extraordinary life. In this sweeping account, historian Linda Gordon charts Lange's journey from polio-ridden child to wife and mother, to San Francisco portrait photographer, to chronicler of the Great Depression and World War II. Gordon uses Lange's life to anchor a moving social history of twentieth-century America, re-creating the bohemian world of San Francisco, the Dust Bowl, and the Japanese American internment camps. She explores Lange's growing radicalization as she embraced the democratic power of the camera, and she examines Lange's entire body of work, reproducing more than one hundred images, many of them previously unseen and some of them formerly suppressed.
Historian 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 howLange 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 the Washington 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).
Introduction "A Camera Is a Tool for Learning How to See ..."
Pt. I Hoboken and San Francisco 1895-1931
Scene 1 3
1 Child of Iron, Wounded 4
2 Apprentice to the City 21
3 Becoming a Photographer 42
4 Maynard Dixon, Bohemian Artist 65
5 Working Mother in Bohemia 75
Pt. II Depression and Renewal 1932-1935
Scene 2 103
6 Leaving the Children, Leaving the Studio 105
7 A New Deal for Artists 121
8 Paul Schuster Taylor, Maverick Economist 140
9 The Romance of Love, the Romance of the Cause 155
10 Blending a Family 175
Pt. III Creating Documentary Photography 1935-1939
Scene 3 191
11 Father Stryker and the Beloved Community 193
12 On the Road: California 209
13 Migrant Mother 235
14 On the Road: The Dust Bowl 244
15 On the Road: The South 259
16 An American Exodus 279
17 Dorothea and Roy 287
Pt. IV Wartime 1939-1945
Scene 4 303
18 Family Stress 305
19 Defiant War Photography: The Japanese Internment 314
20 Unruly War Photography: The Office of War Information and Defense Workers 327
Pt. V Independent Photographer 1945-1965
Scene 5 343
21 Surviving in the Cold 345
22 Working for Life 366
23 Diplomat's Wife 382
24 To a Cabin 401
25 Photographer of Democracy 423
Lange's Photograph Captions 431
Note on Photographs and Quotations 437
Photograph Sources 519
Posted March 15, 2012