Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review - Dorothea Lange : a life beyond limits



Dorothea Lange is such an interesting 20th century woman. Linda Gordon, author of Dorothea Lange : a life beyond limits, believes that not everyone knows her name, but most recognize her photographs. I disagree. I think most people are familiar with her name too. Or they should be. If you're interested in American social history and politics (and of course, photography and women,) you'll find this biography hard to put down. Gordon doesn't take sides, or glorify Lange.





Destitute pea pickers in California.
Mother of seven children
Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (LOC)


The book may be a bit burdensome, but it is a fascinating read and very well documented, as Dorothea would want it to be. Lange always included descriptions for her photographs, and believed an image shouldn't stand alone. She was interested in photography from a young age, and met her first husband, the artist Maynard Dixon, at her San Francisco studio in 1919.




I'm not a photographic fanatic, but I recognize many of the names of her close friends who were also photographers, such as Imogene Cunningham, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. Lange and Dixon married in 1920, and she fell out of the San Francisco art world, trying to keep up with her husband and his travels in the southwest.

It wasn't until the mid-1930s that Lange had a renewed interest in her art, and became a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). She met her second husband, Paul Taylor, who used her photographs for a labor relations article. "They fell in love by watching each other work," Gordon tells us. The two were both involved in human rights issues; Taylor with his political advocacy for land and water reform, Lange with her photography of farm workers and sharecroppers.






Fourth of July, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rural filling stations become community centers and general loafing grounds. The men in the baseball suits are on a local team which will play a game nearby. They are called the Cedargrove Team (LOC)


I think my favorite part of the book was about Lange's involved with the FSA. The striking images she took will be remember by all. Lange had a special talent of putting what she saw down on paper, and she taught many photographers her skill over the years. One of my favorite lines in the book is "she [Lange] told her students that documentary photographs should ask questions, not provide answers." After the Depression, Lange continued working for the government, taking photographs of the Japanese interment camps and for the Office of War Information. These are some of her most striking photographs. Here's one that particularly moved me:


Lange brought alive a new art form that many historians use today, documentary photography. Although she had severe health problems all her life, she travel continuously, sometime under very harsh conditions. When Taylor became a consultant for agrarian reform in the underdeveloped world, Lange went with him on three different occasions. She was very ill when they left for Asia and the Middle East in 1958, but continued to take pictures. In 1963, Lange contracted malaria, which didn't help her physical condition. She died in California, surrounded by her family, on October 11, 1965. Her last words: "It's in scale."










3 comments:

FC said...

Great book review, Storybeader. I couldn't agree more with your appreciation of the book, and with your observation that Lange's name is probably as well known as her photographs.

Frantzie Couch
Lawton, Oklahoma

Splendid Little Stars said...

sounds fascinating! I just watched a documentary on Annie Leibovitz. We are a photography-loving family!

Linda Pruitt said...

Thanks for the reminder about Dorothea's work!

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