I’ve just finished reading Linda Gordon’s 2009 biography of Dorothea Lange (Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits). It’s a thorough, honest narrative of this difficult life and its astonishing production. And it must have been hard to be honest about this life of choices. It is still the case that a man who chooses his work over his children is unremarkable, whereas a woman who makes the same choice is vulnerable to criticism and censure, overt or implicit.
Linda Gordon has made a career of writing about difficult family choices, from birth control to family violence to welfare policy to adoption law and ethnicity. Tough stuff. Then she turned to a very different project that called on all her sensitivity to the ways in which personality and interpersonal relations intersect with culture, economy, and political crisis. She added to this a self-education in the history of photography, so that she could demonstrate how this extraordinary moment of American documentary photography grew out of and was woven weirdly into innovative social policy crossed with American social brutality. The almost accidental emergence of publicly supported documentary photography under Roy Stryker in the Farm Security Administration has shaped ever since how we think about, or picture, both documentary photography and America during the Depression.
Though most of Lange’s iconic Depression-era photographs are of rural and transient people, she grew up wandering New York City, educating herself in New York itself: “the citiest of American cities,” as Gordon engagingly comments. Her mother, single after abandonment by a ne’er do well husband, deliberately raised her children in the city, supporting them with good jobs as a librarian and then a social worker for the court system.
In many ways Dorothea would reproduce her mother’s marital and parenting history, sticking to a (first) artist husband who allowed the marriage to revolve around his art rather than hers, and allowed the parenting and step-parenting duties to fall to his professional wife rather than to him — so that he might be free to wander in pursuit of his art. Yet Lange also followed her mother’s example in forging an independent work life. She found her way uncannily to one of the best photographic educations available, apprenticing herself to Arnold Genthe, the noted portrait photographer. At Genthe’s New York studio she learned everything about running a photography business, from scheduling clients to preparing and processing the photographic plates. She worked with seven more professional photographers after that, and then took a course from Clarence H. White at Columbia University Teacher’s College. White gladly taught women — unusual even in artistic professions, of course, in the nineteen-teens. He taught Lange, Bourke-White, Laura Gilpin, Doris Ulmann.
Though Lange chose the road of studio photography at the beginning of her career, insuring an income for her family, she also happily connected with the artists and writers of Greenwich Village in that exciting era. She was bold and confident, a feminist in behavior, though not in identity, at least before her marriage. She and her best friend planned a trip around the world in 1918. They ended up in San Francisco, their money stolen, and Dorothea immediately got a new job at Marsh’s, a photographic supply store that served the important San Francisco photographic community, including Imogen Cunningham. With a few backers, Lange set up a portrait studio in San Francisco and achieved enormous and rapid success.
The story is way too long to tell it all! Gordon’s biography is satisfyingly thick and rich, a panorama of the too-few seventy years of Lange’s life (she died of esophageal cancer in 1965). We learn about her two marriages — the second, to Paul Taylor, much more egalitarian than the first fifteen-year partnership with the painter Maynard Dixon, though in both marriages she did the second-shift dance. She was both compliant and difficult, overfunctioning as a wife and a photographic colleague and still unable to escape the guilt of having to choose between making a full-time home for her children and maintaining a world-class portrait studio.
She tried to be a good mother to her angry young stepdaughter, but it was hard going. She and Dixon ended up boarding out Consie for considerable periods of time, and later their two young sons as well. It should be noted, and Gordon notes, that these were much more common arrangements at the time, and that the Dixons themselves took in two teenaged boys at various times during their fifteen-year marriage. Her marriage to Paul Schuster Taylor took similar shapes, with the five youngest children of their blended family placed with others when their parents hit the road for the New Deal. Overburdened and functioning as best she could in the constraints of her daily life, like most of us she found it difficult to analyze or understand some of the stubborn systems that kept her from achieving all she dreamed of as wife and mother as well as professional photographer. She could blow up at her stepdaughter, but she couldn’t really blow up at Roy Stryker, who despite Lange’s high profile, hard work, and massive production for the FSA, paid her less than many of the younger (male) photographers on staff.
Lange’s ability to move from recording the lives of the very rich to chronicling the lives of the marginalized poor was in some ways overdetermined. Lange had contracted polio in her childhood and she walked with a limp all her life. She grew up the daughter of a single mother responsible for her two children’s welfare and probably whatever income her ex-husband, Dorothea’s father, lived on. From her school days on she was compelled by the multi-class, multi-ethnic stew that was twentieth-century America. And she was a consummate artist who called herself a craftsman.
As we study the Depression photographs, we note, and Gordon analyzes, their aesthetic elegance and their profound respect for their subjects. She was accustomed to making beautiful pictures of people; she had commanded high prices for doing so. And here were people that to her were equally deserving of pictorial biography — of being noticed and shown as beautiful. Here is one of her pictures of migrant children:
And here, of course, is her famous Migrant Mother photograph, whose history Gordon treats with nuanced respect both for the photographer and for the subject:
Lange had been uncannily drawn to this subject, turning her car around twenty miles past the sign pointing to that particular migrant camp. She returned to find this family. Talking with them to learn their situation, she got them to agree to pose for photographs. The process that Gordon describes may seem initially to belie our commonly held notion of the spontaneous, unposed, and thus “real” nature of documentary photography — photographs documenting people, conditions, landscapes, and processes. Lange had the family pose for several shots, and this one, with the children facing away from the camera as she requested, is the one that became iconic, as Gordon and others have rightly observed.
It is not just our expectation, but also that of contemporaries, that the FSA photographs were not posed that formed the target for the first fire from anti-New Deal politicians who accused the photographers (correctly, of course) of manipulating elements of their photographs. Gordon takes on this issue of the authenticity of documentary photographs both to defend the FSA practices and also to explore the set of assumptions around what makes a photograph a real reflection of the world.
There are a number of other ironic twists and turns in the Migrant Mother story — among them that the woman, Florence Thompson, was Cherokee rather than one of the many “white mothers” displaced by the Dust Bowl. In 1958 Thompson saw this photograph in a magazine — after it had achieved prominence as part of the Family of Man exhibit — and threatened to sue Lange for using the photograph without her permission. Gordon does a lovely job of representing the distressed people on both sides of the camera that day and afterward: Lange, who never owned or controlled any of her FSA photographs and thus never made any money from that image, and Thompson, whose life continued to be a hard-luck story, tragically illustrating the ultimate failure of the FSA photography project and the other New Deal programs, too little and too fleeting to change the lives and insure the well-being of laborers in corporate America.