Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley reviews Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).

Mar 22, 2010 5:47 pm

Ron Briley reviews Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).

As Americans confront the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, one wonders whether the early twenty-first century travails of foreclosure, unemployment, and downsizing will be adequately recorded and documented for future generations. The recent film Up in the Air, featuring George Clooney as a traveling businessman who handles the termination of employees for financially-strapped companies, demonstrates the promise of contemporary art. Yet, there is little government support for fostering the type of documentaries provided by the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) photographers such as Dorothea Lange, whom historian and biographer Lind Gordon describes as “America’s preeminent photographer of democracy.”
In her excellent biography of Lange, Gordon, Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University, demonstrates an impressive grasp of photography, women’s history, the Depression era, Japanese internment, and Cold War culture as she places the life and work of Lange within historical and cultural context. In creating this account of Lang’s life, Gordon draws upon extensive interviews with Lange’s family and associates as well as archival sources. And to document Lange’s approach to photography, the volume includes numerous attractive reproductions of her work.
Describing Lange as a talented artist who was equally passionate regarding photography and democracy, Gordon asserts that Lange believed she had a responsibility to act “against racism, against the particularly intense exploitation of farmworkers, against the environmental destruction of not just nature but also of community and beauty” (424). Despite her passion and talent, Gordon presents Lange as a complicated woman who struggled to balance her professional and family life while expressing doubts about the artistic contributions of her work. In addition, Gordon depicts Lange as an independent woman, who was, nevertheless, often willing to allow the careers of her two husbands to take precedence over her work. Perhaps, this is due, as Gordon suggests, to Lange’s sense of abandonment by her father.
Born as Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1905 in Hoboken, New Jersey, she took her mother’s maiden name of Lange after her father deserted the family following a financial scandal. She also contracted polio at age seven which left her with a withered right leg. Growing up in New York City, Lange drew little inspiration from public school. Instead, the city was her classroom, and the young woman began to apprentice as a photographer.
In 1918, Lange and her friend, Fronsie Ahlstrom embarked on an adventuresome trip around the world, but they only reached San Francisco, where the theft of a purse left the young women without money and seeking employment. Lange found a job at Marsh & Company, selling photo equipment. She soon ingratiated herself with the San Francisco art community. Enjoying a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle, Lange opened a portrait studio which relied upon the patronage of wealthy San Franciscans. Gordon describes her portrait work as intimate rather than glamorous, providing insights into the character of her subjects. Nevertheless, Lange struggled to reconcile her artistic and commercial aspirations. And Lange’s flourishing portrait business failed to survive her marriage to artist Maynard Dixon, approximately twenty years her senior.
Dixon was a gifted muralist who embraced Native American culture while eschewing modernism. After the couple married in 1920, Lange supported Dixon’s career, raising the couple’s two boys and Dixon’s daughter from a previous marriage while the artist was frequently absent on long excursions. The marriage was also strained by Dixon’s infidelities and the economic pressures of the Great Depression. Also politics divided the couple as Lange reacted positively to the governmental initiatives of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, while Dixon adhered to the myth of rugged individualism and remained suspicious of the Roosevelt administration.
Lange responded to the economic crisis by going into the streets of San Francisco to photograph the city’s unemployed. As the marriage to Dixon deteriorated, Lange met University of California Professor Paul Taylor, an economist who was a champion of small farmers and an opponent of California’s large agribusiness interests. The two met when Lange was photographing a San Francisco “Hooverville.” Following a divorce from Dixon, Lange married Taylor on December 6, 1935. Her new husband secured Lange a position as a documentary photographer for the FSA, and Lange accompanied Taylor on his investigation of farm conditions in California. The extensive road trips taken by Lange and Taylor resulted in their children often being placed temporarily in what would today be considered foster homes. Gordon relates that Lange experienced regret about breaking up the family for long periods of time, but that it was necessary if she was to capture the human impact of the Depression. Interjecting herself into the narrative, Gordon writes of how shocked contemporary audiences are with Lange’s boarding of her children, writing, “I frequently reshuffle my points, trying to find a perfect balance among my historian’s consciousness of the customs of that time, my emotional understanding of the abandoned children’s suffering, and my perception of Dorothea’s pain and guilt. There is, of course, no perfect balance, only oscillation” (111).
Gordon devotes the largest section of the book to Lange’s documentary photography for the FSA in the late 1930s. She describes the travels of Lang and Taylor in California, the Midwest, and South examining farming conditions. Although the FSA sought to downplay racial integration as to not antagonize Southern Congressional support, Lange’s commitment to a more democratic America is most evident in her photographs of Southern Black sharecroppers. In a discussion of Florence Thompson’s later objections to Lange’s depiction of her in the iconic Migrant Mother, Gordon addresses accusations that Lange sometimes exploited her subjects. Gordon concludes that the photographer “never worried about potential harm to her subjects. She was so sure that she was doing good that there was no room for such doubts” (243). And Gordon asserts that Lange’s work for the FSA was guided by a democratic vision which celebrated the common people of America who “worked hard, deserved respect, and merited the rights and power of a citizen in a democracy” (219). In October 1940, nevertheless, Lange was dismissed from her FSA position as her supervisor Roy Stryker evidently found her too assertive and was more comfortable with his male employees.
During the Second World War as the reform agenda of the New Deal was overwhelmed by the war effort, Lange maintained her commitment to democracy. She was hired by the U. S. Army to document the Japanese interment experience, but her photographs were never released to the public as the military deemed them too sympathetic to their Japanese-American subjects. She was then hired by the Office of War Information, but again her emphasis upon including depictions of Black workers did not always meet with the less diverse vision of American citizenry perceived by her superiors.
Lange’s documentary photography would be increasingly out of step with a Cold War culture which sought to discredit reform as associated with communism. This political disenchantment coincided with Lange’s declining health as ulcers sapped her drive and energy. Lange did some work for Life, but the magazine voided her complex vision of isolated rural Mormon communities, while her photo essay on Ireland was reduced to a nostalgic treatment of villagers who rejected modernization. Lange also took extensive photographs as she accompanied her husband on agricultural missions to Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, but Gordon concludes that Lange lacked the cultural context and understanding to render these photographs with the same democratic insight as her work from the 1930s.
On October 11, 1965, Lange expired from cancer as she was preparing a retrospective of her work for the Museum of Modern Art, but she did get to spend many of her final days with her grandchildren. Gordon contends that Lange’s best work of the 1930s was “produced not by a faultless genius who could remain above the wounds, failings, and sins that afflict the rest of us, but by a fallible and hardworking woman” (430). They were also the product of a troubled historical time in which Lange maintained her democratic vision of the American people and failed to surrender to fear and despair. We could use her democratic faith and art as we struggle through our current season of discontent.

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