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Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Linda Gordon

(W.W. Norton; US: Oct 2009)

“A Portrait is a lesson on how one human being should approach another.” —Dorothea Lange


Linda Gordon’s assiduously researched biography represents a monumental effort about a difficult subject. In her introduction, Gordon writes of her wish to create Lange’s story as “a woman embedded in the historical events of her time…The story I tell is not only limited by the areas of my expertise but also by the available source material.”  Indeed, Lange kept no diaries until later in life. Few letters exist.  Such is the paucity of source material that Lange never even made a self-portrait: in a book full of gorgeous plates, there are few photographs of Lange herself. This forces Gordon to fall back on American history, her area of expertise. Long passages are devoted to the machinations of federal agencies and California agricultural history. Unfortunately, the writing is often numbing in its exhaustive detail and dry academic language.


When Gordon does discuss Lange, she professes taking great care to prevent viewing Lange’s actions through the prism of present social mores. But she often fails, bolstering assertions by stepping onto the page much as the Victorians did. This “dear reader” address is startling, to say the least: “The contrast between this domestic tyrant and her approach to photographic subjects is so great that at first it was difficult for me to integrate the two.” Later she comments, parenthetically: “(He even said she climbed a tree, hard for me to imagine.)”


Gordon even goes so far as to call Lange’s photo captions “found poetry.” All of this miscellaneous commentary is disappointing, for Lange was a fascinating individual. I only wished there were more Dorothea and less history.


Dorothea Nutzhorn was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, the first child of wealthy German-American parents. Her mother, Joan, was a talented singer; her uncles were lithographers. When Dorothea was seven, she contracted polio, leaving her right foot twisted. She limped the rest of her life, contracting post-polio symptoms in late middle age. In 1907 her father, Henry, left the family. Once a civic leader with political aspirations, he was found guilty of embezzlement. Joan, Dorothea, and her younger brother, Martin, were forced to move in with Joan’s mother, falling from their formerly comfortable post. But Joan was resourceful, soon finding employment.  Dorothea, enraged at Henry, took her mother’s maiden name, never again seeing or speaking of her father. Gordon asserts this left Lange with an orphan complex, forever seeking the approval of older men. 


Yet the young Lange was an independent, headstrong woman with little interest in formal education. Instead she spent hours walking New York City, looking and looking. Despite Gordon’s repeated assertions of Lange’s “disability”, it’s clear that until the post-polio symptoms manifested, her weaker leg was more a nuisance than a true limitation. The book’s cover depicts Lange sitting atop a car, balancing an enormous camera on said weak leg. Despite field garb—pants and shirt, hair covered by a kerchief—Lange is glamorous, the silver cuff she wore gleaming in the sunshine.


Lange studied photography with Arnold Genthe, then apprenticed herself to a variety of male photographers, female professionals being in short supply. She honed her sense of “fineness,” a quality ingrained by her grandmother, not only in her exquisite photographs but her personal style, dressing in restrained but always unusual garb, decorating her homes in a Spartan style unwittingly echoing Japanese design aesthetics.


When Dorothea decided to make a grand tour with her dear friend Fronsie Ahlstrom, circumstances landed them in San Francisco, where Dorothea opened her own studio, rapidly ascending to star status, photographing the wealthiest citizens of the city. Lange’s studio became a salon of sorts, where friends came and went as she worked in the darkroom downstairs. One day she heard the clomping of cowboy boots, worn by Maynard Dixon, a highly regarded artist. The couple’s courtship was rapid: despite the twenty-year age difference, they were passionately in love. But Dixon proved a difficult husband. He was anti-Semitic, hated industrialization, and loved nothing more than to go off into the wilderness alone, often leaving Dorothea with their two young sons, Dan and John, and Consie, the child of his first marriage.


Dorothea’s relationship with Consie was strained and often outright hostile. Maynard, all too happy to leave domestic troubles to a woman, left Dorothea in the still-unsolved, impossible position of being wife, artist, and mother. And though she worked hard to maintain all three roles, becoming an accomplished cook and housekeeper, she frequently lost her temper with the children, who even now, as elderly adults, have mixed memories of her.


Although Dorothea learned much about art from Maynard, even acquiring his love of the wilderness, his tendency to escape reality diverged from her desire to document the growing impact of the Great Depression. Gordon’s rendition of San Francisco during this time, the men in breadlines, hungry children roaming the streets, is enough to chill any current reader’s heart. Gordon herself comments “I never anticipated finishing this book under economic conditions resembling those she felt and illustrated.” 


In 1935 Dorothea met her second husband, economist Paul Taylor. It was Taylor who truly sparked the political activism that drove Lange’s work until her death in 1965. Taylor was impassioned about farmer’s rights. To that end, he taught himself Spanish and learned to move among Mexican migrant workers in a way that earned trust. The coupled traveled together, documenting California’s farmworkers. Their love blossomed gradually: both were in difficult marriages; both had children. When they decided to divorce their spouses and marry, they began a thirty-year partnership shaped by New Deal tenets. Though Taylor rarely won his battles—his employer, the University of California at Berkeley, was unsupportive, and his publications were often suppressed—he never ceased speaking up for migrant’s rights.


The couple worked under the now-famed auspices of the WPA, writing and photographing for the Farmer’s Security Administration. It was here that Lange would produce her most famous images of impoverished of “Okies”, Mexicans, Filipinos, and the iconic “Migrant Mother”, a woman named Florence Thompson, who was a full-blooded Cherokee. 


The misogyny Lange endured is also exhaustively documented and enough to raise any modern reader’s hackles. Lange was, by all accounts, often irascible and demanding, though one wonders how much of that was cultivated simply to receive equal treatment. Like all FSA photographers, she had no control over her images. She was required to send all negatives to Washington, where they were printed by technicians. Her repeated requests for reimbursements or equipment were at times ignored; she was often fired, rehired, asked to travel at a moment’s notice, then informed the trip was cancelled. When FSA director Roy Stryker finally fired her for good, he refused her final request that the office pay to have her cameras cleaned.


Lange went on to work for the Army, who hired her to document the Japanese internment camps, then attempted destroy or suppress nearly all the photographs. She also worked for Life magazine, who, like the FSA, demanded full control of negatives and rejected Lange’s repeated requests for input about the use of her images. 


Like so many artists, Lange longed for more time to execute any number of projects, few of which came to fruition as her health declined. Post-polio fatigued her. Worse were the bleeding ulcers and esophageal problems that plagued her as she aged, becoming so serious she often had trouble eating. What she did eat she often lost though chronic diarrhea. Treatment at the time was primitive: manually stretching the esophagus, cobalt radiation. What could be treated easily today by drugs like Prilosec or Prevacid killed Dorothea Lange slowly and agonizingly. She was prescribed Librium for pain. Later, diagnosed with an inoperable, cancerous esophageal tumor (the result of years of bleeding ulcers and acid reflux), she was given Percoset, which must have felt like baby aspirin. Lange fought, working whenever she could, rushing to choose the photographs comprising her first Metropolitan Museum of Art show, which she would not live to see. She answered the call of the nascent civil rights movement, but did not live to contribute. 


What emerges is a talented, conflicted persona. The mother and later stepmother of six children sent those children into foster care while she traveled the state with husband Paul. This was common practice at the time, but left all the children scarred: Consie Dixon never made peace with her stepmother. Biological son Dan Dixon went through a period of serious rebellion that included truancy and theft, while Paul’s son Ross, a talented musician, became mentally ill and died after overdosing on medication and alcohol. All of Lange’s descendants recall her mania for an immaculate house and her ironclad holiday rituals, which, though abundant, were inflexible. Yet all speak of her kindness to her grandchildren and endless delight in the visual world.


Gordon extols the beauty and dignity of Lange’s subjects, stating the impoverished men of the FSA shots “ooze sex appeal”. I found the photographs wrenching. The men Lange photographed did their best to present themselves as clean, upright citizens, but their surroundings—shacks, makeshift tents, filthy creeks—belie their efforts. The perfectly composed shot of a crying girl waiting for deportation to Manzanar is made all the more searing by the beautifully sunny day. The smiling Mexican woman is indeed pretty as she stands in a wintry field, clad only in a dirty sweater and torn blouse, her arm around a child.


Here is a child covered in flies; here is another, perhaps seven years old, changing a car tire. The photographs, with their perfect composition and gorgeous gray scale printing, evoke horror, both at the way we treated one another then, and how little has changed today. This is what Lange wanted: to get our attention. Whether or not she succeeded remains to be seen.


I have no doubt Gordon faced great obstacles in writing about Lange, and her efforts at ferreting out information about her elusive subject are laudable. I only wish the text were more accessible—both Vickie Goldberg’s biography of Margaret Bourke-White and Patricia Bosworth’s of Diane Arbus come to mind. At the risk of a slighter book, I would choose more Dorothea and less history. Yes, the two were bound, but on balance, the book’s historical details shove Lange into the last place she wished to be: on the sidelines.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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