The Photography of Democracy


Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits
By Linda Gordon
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 624 pp., $35.00, hardcover.

Reviewed by Dalia Habib Linssen


Any collection of images of the Depression in the United States is sure to include some photographs by Dorothea Lange. One of America’s most celebrated photographers, best known for her intensely humanizing portrayals of an economically and agriculturally ravaged country, Lange helped define the terms of documentary photography. Linda Gordon’s meticulously researched and engagingly written biography, Dorothea Lange, constitutes an essential contribution to Lange scholarship. As a prominent historian of gender and family in the United States, Gordon is concerned with “understanding…the life of a woman embedded in the historical events of her time.”

Situated between compelling readings of the photographer’s personal life and professional work stands Gordon’s primary premise, which posits Lange as “a photographer of democracy and for democracy.” Gordon’s second theme, meanwhile, amends previous feminist-leaning readings of Lange to present the photographer as a woman whose familial, social, and professional obligations often conflicted but who “nevertheless behaved like a feminist throughout her life.” In this chronologically organized volume, Gordon expounds upon these two assertions, urging readers to understand the life and work of this esteemed photographer by delving beneath the now-iconic two-dimensional surfaces she created.

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, into a cultured middle-class German-American family in 1895, Dorothea Nutzhorn was the first of two children. Gordon anchors her vivid descriptions of Lange’s background with the two biographical elements that shaped her life: her battle with polio, which left her with a permanent limp and continued to afflict her later in life, and her parents’ splitting and father’s subsequent distance. These experiences informed both Lange’s artistic approach—her receptiveness toward those with disabilities visible and invisible—and her relationships with men. One result of these traumas was Lange’s decision to adopt her mother’s maiden name. Lange spent more than a decade in New York City, where she attended public schools and became familiar with modern art and photography through courses, apprenticeships, and museum visits. She took long walks through the city’s Lower East Side, which planted in her the seeds of the social awareness, and where she “learned to see,” in the photographic sense of the term.

In 1918, Lange moved to San Francisco with her close friend Fronsie Ahlstrom and developed an immediate connection to the city’s arts community. She joined the Camera Club, where she became acquainted with established, practicing photographers, and only months after arriving, opened a portrait studio at 540 Sutter Street. Gordon rightly focuses new attention on this often-condensed period of the photographer’s life, highlighting the cadre of women photographers and others with whom she surrounded herself, and providing detailed descriptions of Lange’s characteristically penetrating portrait style: she eschewed costuming and flair in favor of revealing depth of character in her upscale clientele. Successfully negotiating the very different social worlds of bohemian San Francisco—to which she and her first husband, the renowned American painter Maynard Dixon, belonged—and the city’s social elite, Lange became San Francisco’s premier portrait photographer by the time she was 26. Gordon suggests that Lange pushed against conventional social limits during this time as she creditably struggled to balance marriage, motherhood, and her professional career. Tied to her studio practice, she experienced mounting conflicts between maintaining her business and caring for her two young sons and stepdaughter. Gordon sensitively portrays the tough decisions Lange faced as a working mother, including boarding her sons with foster parents. Contextualizing her discussion by explaining the socially defined boundaries of women’s roles during the 1920s and 1930s, Gordon steers clear of either justifying or condemning Lange’s actions.

Lange created the image “White Angel Breadline,” which channels the generalized struggles of many affected by the Depression into the downcast posture of a single figure, in 1932. In her discussion of this image, Gordon dispels the notion that Lange shifted abruptly and unconsciously from controlled, high-end studio portraiture to unstructured and grittier street-level photography, by identifying instances such as this, when Lange deliberately went into San Francisco’s streets with the intention of photographing nonpaying subjects.

Lange had an ambivalent response to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects—she was both inspired by the government’s activism and troubled by the programs’ “inadequacy to the need.” Her conflicting emotions were a catalyst, activating her to become involved with the grassroots movements where she would develop her socially engaged photography.

Gordon conveys key aspects of Lange’s advance into documentary photography by exploring the photographer’s personal and working relationship with her second husband, Paul Taylor. A strong-willed economist from the University of California, Berkeley, Taylor established a field-based study of agricultural labor through personal interviews that dovetailed with Lange’s individualizing style of portraiture. Seeing photography as a persuasive visual analogue to his research, Taylor approached Lange after viewing her work at the photographer Willard Van Dyke’s Oakland gallery. Lange and Taylor first worked together for the California Division of Rural Rehabilitation (which initially hired her as a typist). They often put in sixteen-hour days, with Taylor conducting interviews and Lange photographing farm laborers, women and their “endless struggle to create cleanliness and order,” and children. Their project led to the establishment of several camps for migrant workers. During this time, the couple developed a collaborative work methodology as well as a deep interpersonal relationship. They left their respective spouses and married one another in 1935.

Lange spent the next four years producing some of the period’s most enduring imagery; Gordon’s chapters on these years are pivotal contributions of her book. As the FSA attempted to raise public awareness about the plight of rural Americans, as well as to provide services to hard-hit farmers and field workers, the agency frequently came under fire from political conservatives. Because of photography’s alleged transparency, the agency’s director, Roy Stryker, hired photographers whom he charged with producing a body of images that would visually bolster the agency’s social programs. Lange’s geographic territory extended over the entire state of California. Gordon offers revealing, in-depth descriptions of Lange’s work days, including the routes she drove—often hundreds of miles in a day—the types of cameras she used, the times of day when the light enabled her to photograph, and the types of lodgings in which she and her assistants stayed.

Gordon provides rich descriptions of Lange’s development as a photographer, her ongoing worries about her children, her distressing physical ailments, and her rapport with her subjects, based on interviews with Lange’s family and assistants. Gordon’s argument for Lange as a photographer of democracy is strongest in this section. Many socially engaged photographers, among them Lange’s FSA colleagues, shared a set of left-leaning, popular-front, pictorial strategies linked to social realism. However, according to Gordon, Lange was distinguished by her careful attention to racial and gender politics. Though many of Lange’s subjects were white “Okies,” she also photographed Mexican, Filipino, and Chinese fieldworkers, as well as other nonwhites. Establishing visual order amid the chaos of migrant life, many of Lange’s portraits in the field convey a sense of individuality. As Gordon notes, “However broke and broken, her subjects remain captivating, and capable.” Focusing her camera on the “common man,” Lange shied from sentimentality, rendering her subjects “as model citizens [who] worked hard, deserved respect, and merited the rights and power of a citizen in a democracy.” Although in the South Lange generally followed agency directives that barred representations of whites and blacks together, her photographs, with their detailed captions, often crossed racial lines to show the similarities between the two groups.

Certain themes course through Lange’s documentary work, which Gordon perceptively classifies as the “female heroic,” “dejected men,” environmental degradation, and human desertion. Lange responded to the turbulence of camp life, which often disrupted family units, by highlighting the emergence of nontraditional gender codes, such as single fathers caring for young children.

Gordon pays particular attention to Lange’s relationship with Roy Stryker, whom she characterizes as both a father figure whose praise Lange sought and a dictator whose attempts to control her prints drove her (and other FSA photographers) mad. The problem was exacerbated by Lange’s considerable distance from Washington, DC. Gordon focuses on this frustration to raise an important point: Lange maintained a lifelong insistence upon a narrative understanding of her work. Often troubled by the removal of captions and the resultant decontextualization of her work, Lange believed that her photographs should operate as syntactical elements woven together with text to build a multidimensional narrative. This is seen most effectively in American Exodus (1939), the book she and Paul Taylor produced in the service of agricultural reform.

After leaving the FSA, Lange photographed for other government agencies, including the Office of War Information and the War Relocation Authority. Her coverage of the mass evacuation and internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans into remote, government-built relocation camps (which Gordon discusses in her book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment [2006]) points both to Lange’s subtle way of challenging her orders and her pursuit of narrative context. After serious bouts with failing health in the late 1940s, which forced her to limit her work, Lange returned to photography in the 1950s. She organized her photographs into thematic groupings; helped to found the influential photography magazine, Aperture; worked briefly for Life magazine; and contributed to photographer Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibit, The Family of Man. 

Gordon launches this engrossing and intricately constructed biography by discussing Lange’s iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, of a woman—Florence Thompson—in a pea picker’s camp, beneath a lean-to tent, surrounded by her three children. Her expression and gesture seem to represent the anxiety of the entire country. Gordon uses the creation of this image both to challenge its iconicity and to reveal critical details about Lange—the thick silver cuff she wore on her arm, her human-centered working style, the physical challenges she faced, her complicated family life, and her temperament, compassionate, devoted, yet often quick-tempered and controlling. Gordon presents readers with a richly nuanced likeness, which eloquently penetrates the two-dimensional surfaces of Dorothea Lange’s images to portray a woman who was exceptional as a result of what Gordon characterizes as, “her talent and her willingness to reach beyond limits.”


Dalia Habib Linssen teaches the history of photography and art as an adjunct instructor at Boston University. 

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