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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.

4

Book Review: The Accidental Millionaire by Gary Fong

Have you ever read a book or seen a movie and said to yourself: “This is so unbelievable, it must be true!” Well, this book: The Accidental Millionaire: How to Succeed in Life Without Really Trying, by Gary Fong (BenBella Books), contains quite a few “scenes” that fit that description quite well. If you are not familiar with the book’s author, Gary Fong is a well-known photographer, inventor and entrepreneur who has become one of the most recognized names in the photo industry. I really enjoy biographies of people who have gone through great lengths to achieve success, and this autobiography is an excellent example of that.

fongbook

The book starts with Fong’s early childhood–much of it spent in a haze of hairspray due to his mother’s wig business. When he wasn’t in school or helping his parents with their work (including prepping and delivering newspapers from about 3:30-6:30AM every day of the week during high school), it seems as though young Gary was always contemplating how he could do things a bit better (or just survive). For example, he worked out in his mind how he would survive if his family became homeless, and he tested the theory by spending a whole night until dawn outside his home without his parents’ knowledge…at age 12! He also worked out elaborate ways in his mind and on paper which he could protect his family from potential burglars during the time when they ran a retail store in Los Angeles. When Fong talks about many of the experiences he has had, he gives the reader a good sense of what it was like to be in his shoes at specific times in his life. He also reminds us that there are many who do very difficult jobs every day for very low wages.

Once I started reading the book, I found myself always looking forward to getting back to it, and I was frequently amused and/or stunned by the situations in which Fong found himself–including a shocking story of how one of his mentors helped a bride deal with wedding jitters. And that brings me to the many female heroines in the book. I must admit, I sometimes felt like I was getting a little TMI (too much information), but that didn’t stop me from reading all that Fong had to say about his dealings with girlfriends, assistants and online women with whom he found himself involved in one way or another. Let me sum it up by saying that “As the World of Gary Fong Turns” might be a good title for the 8-part TV mini series!

The book has a small number of black and white photos to help illustrate the events and information Fong covers in the book. One of the photos is of a tiny room in his parents’ home where he started and built his wedding photography business. Another shows a photo layout from 1986 illustrating his Storyboard approach to wedding photography and album layout.

I don’t know Gary Fong very well, but we’ve met on a few occasions over the years, and one event that sticks in my head was a photography trade show in San Diego, CA in 2004 or 2005. He was doing a photo lecture and the room was filled. People appeared to be listening intently at his every word. At the end, he took orders for some of his products, and people could not hand over their cash and credit cards fast enough! I think that Fong has a great sense of knowing what people want and need based on his struggles and experiences throughout his life.

I’m a bit of a garage inventor/product developer (GalleryPouchâ„¢ is one example), and I’m also a longtime portrait and still-life photographer, so I found Fong’s advice regarding how his ideas for software, photo albums and camera gadgets like his popular LightSphere products came to be. While reading the book, I felt almost as though we were having a few drinks and chatting about stories from his life. You don’t need to be a professional photographer or play one on TV to be entertained and learn a lot from the content in this book. I believe that anyone who is building a business or who wants one person’s perspective about how to be successful should seriously consider reading it.

For more information about the book, visit the publisher’s site: benbellabooks.com.

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