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Book Review: Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon

May 26 is the late Dorothea Lange’s birthday. If you aren’t familiar with Dorothea Lange, you are probably familiar with some of her photographs from her time as a photographer with the FSA (Farm Security Administration), including one with the title: Migrant Mother, shown below.

dorothealangemigrantmother1Migrant Mother, photograph by Dorothea Lange

I finished this 560 page book, entitled, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits a few months ago, and now seemed like an ideal time to put together all my notes and write a review.  It’s a fantastic book, and one I recommend for anyone who has an interest in the history of photography or 20th Century U.S. history.

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As a biography, you might assume the book is about the life of Dorothea Lange–and you’d be correct. But it is much more than that. The book covers her life chronologically, from her birth in Hoboken, NJ in 1895 until her death in 1965.  What separates it from many other biographies is that it discusses and educates the viewer about the world that surrounded Dorothea throughout her life (and in some cases, the years prior to and since her death). The book’s author, Linda Gordon, speaks to the reader in very frank, honest terms, and explains that in many cases, there was no written or oral record of events to chronicle. At times, Ms. Gordon speculates about how Ms. Lange might have felt based on her research and knowledge of history.

To best explain why I found the book to be outstanding, listed below are some of the many topics into which the book delves:

– Life as the child of an immigrant in the USA;

– Life as a student in the lower-east side of New York City in the early 1930’s;

– The experiences of a child growing up without a father in the home;

– The devastating effect that alcoholism can have on families;

– How travel to a new place often completely changes one’s life plans;

– The effects that divorce can have on families;

– The common struggle of families and individuals to make a living;

– The tensions between labor and management throughout history;

– Agribusiness, and the “big growers” (especially in California);

– Class struggles in the United States over the last 100 years;

– The Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Its causes and ramifications for so many (especially those who traveled west for work from Oklahoma and other affected states);

– The story of Japanese Americans uprooted and sent to relocation camps in the 1940s;

– How a single photograph can influence so many;

– Life as a photographer in the FSA in the 30’s and 40’s;

– Life as a woman photographer in the FSA in the 30’s and 40’s;

– “Documentary” vs “art” photography and the culture of museums and other institutions;

– Behind the scenes stories about legendary photographer and friend of Lange, Ansel Adams;

– The difficult decisions related to, and effects of sending young children to boarding schools;

– Common experiences of parenthood vs. grandparenthood;

– The desire for individuals to be recognized for their creative work;

– The business of professional portrait photography;

– Photography as a recognized and respected art form over the years;

– Living through the extreme pain and the debilitating effects of cancer on one’s body;

– The struggle to retain one’s dignity in the face of extreme poverty;

– Life as an African American in the deep south in the mid-20th Century;

– The effect of large format photography (as opposed to 35mm or medium format) on one’s style and approach to one’s subject;

– The issues surrounding the captioning (text descriptions) of photographs throughout history.

As noted in the last line above, one of the most important issues discussed in the book, and central to Dorothea Lange’s experiences as a photographer, was the issue of uncaptioned photographs. As I learned from the book and from my own observations over the years, without a proper description for a photograph (preferably written by an observer at the scene), a still photograph can be deliberately or mistakingly captioned, thus conveying a message quite different from what actually occurred.

In today’s world of digital photography with instant feedback and the ability to backup data quickly and inexpensively, I can only imagine the frustration that Ms. Lange and many other FSA photographers felt who were forced to send their film to Washington, D.C., (often thousands of miles away), not knowing if it would arrive safely, and in many cases, never seeing the final product. The book also mentions that many negative were intentionally destroyed by  Roy Stryker, head of the “Historical Section” of the FSA. You can find out more about that and other information about the FSA on this website.

The references in the back of the book are extensive, and well worth reading. I consider the references a “text-book lesson” in how one should do research for such a project. Because Ms. Gordon was not an expert in photography, I believe it was a very different type of book compared with other biographies written by people with a vast knowledge of the subject’s field.

After reading this book, I had an opportunity to watch Black Blizzard, an outstanding video documentary about The Dust Bowl, and it gave me a much better understanding of the terrible conditions that so many faced in the 1930s, as well as its causes. You can find the video here.

Printed Photographs and Related Photos

On the topic of photographs reproduced in the book, there is a mix of glossy pages and photographs printed on uncoated paper. The images printed on glossy pages are far superior, and it would have been wonderful to have had more of them. To get a better sense of the detail and sharpness in her work, there are thousands of photographs by Dorothea Lange available online for viewing and/or download on this page of the Library of Congress’ website.

The book is available on Amazon.com via this link. Purchasing through our Amazon.com link helps support our publishing efforts.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher to review.

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 12 comments
David Brown - May 29, 2011

Hi

This is a great blog post. I spent a lot of time studying the work of Ansel Adams a legend of photography, this reminds me that I must have come across the work of Dorothea who also produced her great work in the same era as Adams and the two were also friends.

Main differences between the two were the chosen subects where Adams was more memorable for the landscapes, Lange\\\’s were more human based but on saying that Adams also covered the internment of the Japanese-Americans in the second world war for for which both photographers opposed.

Great Review!

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Steve - June 3, 2011

Very interesting article and image. Useful blog. Well done.
Regards
Steve
Cumbria Wedding Photographer

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Infrared Photography - June 7, 2011

Never heard of her, I’ll have to take a look at that book it does look really interesting, thank you for sharing.

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Wedding photographer Rochester NY - June 8, 2011

Her work and the history it records give a unique perspective to the 30’s and 40’s You can almost feel the emotion of her work

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Kristyn - June 13, 2011

I\’ve always felt a connection between the kind of experiences Lange so accurately captured. She was one of the most talented women photographers of her era – and she went places in photography that others wouldn\’t. She seemed far less concerned with publishing an image that would pleasantly resound with an audience – her concern was more to uproot the comfort of her audience through bringing to light major societal and familial issues.

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Kelly - July 6, 2011

Lange is one of my favorite photographers. Her captures are more than just images, they are fabulous moments of emotion.

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Matthew Bamberg - July 10, 2011

Looks like a good book. I’ve written similar books.

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Kenneth Pasternak - July 17, 2011

Great post I will have to read the book. Dorothea Lange is a photographer that inspired me to get into photography.

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Camera Specialist - August 19, 2011

I actually picked up this book Kenneth, one of my favs now 🙂

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Stephanie - August 22, 2011

This is really interesting, we always like to make a point of highlighting interesting women in the arts and have recently profiled Vivian Maier and Diane Arbus. If anyone has any other suggestions they would be more than welcome!

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paul - August 25, 2011

will have to check this out . a very powerful image above migrant mother.

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Andy - October 27, 2011

This is a really amazing article. Thanks for this.

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