Arts Listings

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by

Reviewed by Dorothy Bryant
Thursday April 08, 2010 - 05:28:00 PM

Biographies of explorers and politicians fill us in on background, motivation, and influences we might not otherwise know. But biographies of artists are generally useless. The fact that Flaubert lived reclusively with his doting mother tells us nothing about the source of the cool poetic prose he developed to dissect complacent French provincial life; the dramatic love affair of Chopin and George Sand (for which that much abused woman usually gets a bad rap) gives us no insight into the sources of his music; the wondrous use of color in the paintings of Gauguin came, not because of his self-mythologizing, free-loading pedophilia (the Tahitian maidens were usually about 14) but in spite of his total lack of redeeming qualities. Artistic production is a mystery, emerging from a secret inner core only minimally affected by outside events. There are exceptions. Sometimes world events and the artist’s inner drive combine to feed one another, the history inspiring the artist, and the artist affecting the perception, if rarely the direction, of that history, as in the creation of historical novels.

The photography of Dorothea Lange is an example of this fruitful collision of inner and outer worlds. Author Linda Gordon starts with a disclaimer: she is a historian, not a biographer. Ideally, biographers should all be historians as well, and vice versa. But forced to choose, I would say that, in this case, a historian’s broad knowledge is more needed than details of Lange’s heritage or of photographic technique—because Lange’s life and accomplishment were very much driven by dramatic mid-20th century events. 

Dorothea Nutzhorn was born in Hoboken, in 1895, to upper-middle class, socially prominent parents whose grandparents had immigrated from Germany. A bout with polio at age seven left her with a limp, but her father’s disappearance in 1907 made a greater change in her life. It probably created the silence (no diaries, no letters kept, virtually no written record) of her first twenty years. Gordon cites some evidence that the father’s desertion was more complicated than Dorothea ever let on—he seems to have been caught embezzling a large sum, went underground using an assumed name, and managed to stay out of prison—evidently with occasional financial help from his wife, who immediately moved, with Dorothea and brother Martin, to Grandmother Sophie’s home in New York City. Her mother instantly got a well-paying job as a librarian. Status, contacts, and money seem to have remained secure on her mother’s side of the family, since Gordon says nothing about impoverishment after the father’s disappearance. And living in New York City opened a wider world to young Dorothea. 

Her schooling with bright, studious Jews inspired her only to skip classes and wander the streets (until very recently urban children went everywhere on foot.) The confidence she gained may have been what impelled her as a teen-ager to walk into Genthe’s studio, cold, ask for a job, and become one of his many young short-term assistants coming and going. After Genthe she worked for other photographers. In 1918, at age 23, she and a girlfriend decided to travel “around the world,” and got as far as San Francisco before losing their money. That was when she dropped her father’s name, took her mother’s maiden name, and became Dorothea Lange. 

Gordon’s skill and knowledge as a historian get us through this undocumented first third of Lange’s life. Forced to fall back on phrases like “Dorothea must have noticed . . . could have seen . . . might have . . . “and so on, she makes good use of her research background as a historian. (A rare slip is her describing Dorothea as needing to lose her fear of wandering “San Francisco’s Mission District.” Gordon has apparently misused the term when referring to a few blocks of skid row south of Market. The actual Mission District—bordered by Twin Peaks on the west, Potrero Hill on the east, Market Street on the north, and Bernal Heights on the south—was, when Lange arrived, a quiet, clean, mixed residential/industrial neighborhood of European immigrant families, with barely a sprinkle of Hispanics who later became the majority. I can’t imagine that a young woman who had wandered New York streets would have felt uneasy after a five minute glance at the Mission District streets on which I spent my 1930s childhood.) 

Gordon is a bit casual mentioning the $3000 (a huge sum in 1918) Lange borrowed from unnamed “friends” she had presumably just met, so that she could open a portrait studio in a fashionable downtown location that also housed an art gallery. She became an instant, lifelong friend of Imogene Cunningham, and an instant success as portrait photographer to the “merchant princes,” of San Francisco—mostly the San Francisco Jewish families renowned for their benevolence, social consciousness, and good taste. Not to belittle Lange’s talent and energy, surely her class contacts were part of a network that helped establish her, and to bring well-known artist Maynard Dixon—20 years older, divorced, one daughter—down from the gallery above to meet her. They married in 1920.  

In this marriage Lange was following the approved path to “success” for a woman with creative talent: marry a man acknowledged as superior to her in his art, and serve his needs. (Marriage to man equal or inferior in accomplishment might prove fatal to marriage—it was and is rare to find a Leonard Woolfe willing to subordinate his ambitions to Virginia’s, or a George Henry Lewes devoting himself to fostering the work of George Elliot.) Perhaps, as Gordon implies, what this marriage had going for it was that Lange gained attention as being a worthy companion to a “real” artist. She still spoke as if she shared the common opinion that photography was questionable as an “art,” or more than questionable, just an image manufactured by machine. Whether she still believed that is doubtful.  

The marriage produced two sons and lasted, withering slowly, for fifteen years. Gordon presents Maynard Dixon as a lover of old California landscape (he was born in Fresno) and an idealizer of traditional, dying Indian culture in posters, murals, drawings, and paintings. But his work, as the Great Depression hit the country, gives hints that he could have nudged Dorothea in the direction her photography would take. Examples: shortly after 1930 Dixon sketched and painted “Bindle Stiffs” and “Noplace to Go” (depicting migrants also referred to as “fruit tramps”) and “Forgotten Man,” an all too familiar view (then as today) of a street person sitting slumped on a curb. 

What finally ended Lange’s first marriage was the arrival on the scene of UC Professor Paul Taylor with some New Deal grants and commissions to document the conditions of displaced rural farmers. Taylor first contacted Lange for permission to use one of her photos. Attraction was instant, and by 1935 both had divorced to marry each other. For the next five years, with Berkeley as home base, she traveled with Taylor, both documenting rural agricultural conditions for the Farm Security Administration, Taylor in written reports, Lange in photographs, doing her most well-known work, including, of course, the world famous “Migrant Mother.”  

This era ended when Pearl Harbor plunged the USA into World War II. The Office of War Information hired Lange to photo-document the internment of west coast Japanese Americans. Fortune magazine commissioned a series of photos of the Richmond Shipyards. In 1945 Lange was one of the photographers hired by the OWI to document the San Francisco conference founding the United Nations. 

That year marked, not only the end of the war, but the first downturn in Lange’s health, starting with bleeding ulcers. It also marked the beginning of Cold War right-wing red-baiting, with the FBI starting files on anyone with “subversive” interest in the problems of poor workers. Academics like Taylor wrestled with their conscience and their family’s economic needs—then usually signed meaningless but highly symbolic Loyalty Oaths. Lange’s decade of respected photo-documentation of poor and working class people was suddenly out of step with the time. 

During the next 20 years of declining, but occasionally rebounding health, Lange helped found Aperture, which continues to publish a periodical and fine books devoted to photography. Life Magazine commissioned a series on Mormons in Utah, one on County Clare, Ireland. In the 1950s, she, with Pirkle Jones, photographed the flooding of the Berryessa Valley to build the Monticello Dam and sent their photo essay “Death of a Valley,” to Life Magazine, which wouldn’t touch this politically incorrect take on dams and “progress.” She went along, cameras in tow, when Taylor was sent as a consultant on agrarian reform: Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Korea, then—retired from UC— to a brief teaching stint in Egypt, in 1963, by that time an ordeal for Lange, who, at 68, was very ill and weak.  

Gordon does not present a rose-colored view of the parenting of this so-called “blended” family (each had two sons from their former marriages; Dixon’s daughter by his first wife had long been alienated from Dorothea). As parents, Dorothea and Paul and Maynard seem to have been, not abusive, but simply in denial of the existence of children having any claim, let alone effect, on their single, roving life-style. Whenever Paul and Dorothea took off, traveling for months on end, they left the four boys in various foster homes. (Maynard never provided a home, let alone a penny of child support.) These long absences must have contrasted ironically with ceremonial festive Christmas celebrations, elaborately planned, executed, and enjoyed by Dorothea. Readers might remain unimpressed, as were the Taylor/Dixon/Lange children. Interviewed by Gordon in their old age, Dorothea’s sons were still bitter about being dumped in the homes of strangers—bitter toward her, of course, not toward Paul Taylor or Maynard Dixon. Responsibilities of fatherhood, it seems, were, and often still are, seen as limited to conception, like wild male animals who disappear after mating. But the double standard doesn’t explain or excuse the failure of these parents to devise a better solution to child care during their field work. Hiring a good full-time care-giver-housekeeper to keep the children in their Berkeley home and schools couldn’t have cost more than farming them out, especially during the Depression. 

The most interesting thread that weaves through this book is the infuriating trouble stemming from politics and government bureaucracy. Most admirers of Lange need to be reminded of these political frustrations, and Gordon does an excellent job of nailing them. Here are only a few examples: 

1. She was required to send all negatives of her famous farm worker photos to be processed and stored in Washington D. C., and no amount of arguing would convince the head of the Farm Security Administration that her judgment on what to print and how to print it was better than his, nor that he should not punch holes in the negatives he rejected! 

2. The Office of War Information hired Lange to photograph the internment of Japanese-Americans—no doubt as evidence that this horror was being done nicely. The photos she produced disappeared, were hidden in secret files, not even available to her until shortly before her death. My guess (judging from my experience here at the time) is that, by the time she turned them in, the whole country had come slightly to their senses and were eager to hide, erase, forget this blight on our history. (In 2006 Gordon co-edited, with Gary Okihiro, the book Impounded, using many of Lange’s photos of the Japanese-American community.) 

3. Taylor’s post-war overseas consulting on “agrarian reform” consulting was a cold-war façade, a PR job. It was clear to both Paul and Dorothea that if he recommended the farming co-operatives that might truly help these third-world farmers, he would become a liability to the government, branded as “communist” by right wing McCarthyites. As if to underline their false position, Dorothea, for the first time in her life, encountered children who threw rocks at her as soon as they saw her camera—or perhaps as soon as they recognized her as American. 

4. Racism ruled in local and national government. Southern legislators forbade images of blacks and whites together. In California, the effect of her famous, oft-reprinted images of white migrant workers (like the images in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) was to wipe out the true history of plantation-migrant agriculture in this state, performed mostly by Mexicans, Filipinos, Punjabis, and some blacks, under conditions no better than what white dust-bowl refugees faced when they came here. 


According to Gordon, Dorothea Lange’s work was unknown at her death “except among photographers.” I am happy to be able to disagree with this statement. In the weeks before Lange’s death in 1965, she struggled to finish one more task: to prepare her one-woman show for the New York Museum of Modern Art. An unknown photographer is not invited to exhibit at the MOMA, following a select few photographers like Ansel Adams. Certainly, her present world-wide fame had to wait until the Civil Rights Movement began shredding the repressive politics of the 1950s. But her work had to have been admired by a number of people, to justify a show at MOMA. She knew she wouldn’t live to see it; she just wanted to live long enough to make sure they got it right. 

In addition to all the stories and facts I have barely touched, there are over 100 photos reproduced in this book. Linda Gordon has done a fine job of presenting Dorothea Lange as “America’s preeminent photographer of democracy.”  

Lange herself once described what she did by saying, “Art is a by-product of an act of total attention.” 



Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon, W. W. Norton, 536 pages $35. 


You can see photos by Dorothea Lange and her colleagues during the “75th Anniversary of the WPA in Berkeley” exhibit at: 

Berkeley History Center 

1931 Center, 848 0181 

opening April 11.