Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits
By Linda Gordon
Hardcover, 560 pages
W. W. Norton & Company
List price: $35
"A Camera Is a Tool for Learning How to See . . ."
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
The visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable.
. . . I have only touched it with this wonderful democratic instrument, the camera . . . — Dorothea Lange
This photograph, often called Migrant Mother, is one of the most recognized pictures in the world. It is not the only one of Dorothea Lange's to win such fame—readers will recognize others in this book. Her photographs often linger in viewers' memories as if their intensity etched itself into the mind. Yet many who are familiar with the photographs do not know the name of the photographer and very few know anything about her. This is partly because most of her photographs were published anonymously, and partly because, when she died in 1965 at age seventy, only a handful of photography connoisseurs grasped her genius and her influence. That has changed: in October 2005 a vintage print of one of her photographs sold at auction for $822,400. (See page 102.) She would have enjoyed the money (she earned little from her photography) and the fame (she savored recognition as much as anyone), but she would have questioned what it meant that a photograph of hungry men at a soup kitchen had become a luxury commodity.
I have come to think of Lange as a photographer of democracy, and for democracy. She was not alone in this commitment, for she had predecessors and colleagues, and today has many photographic descendants. From her family of origin, her two extraordinary husbands, and friends of great talent she absorbed sensitivity, taste, and technique. These people are part of her enabling context, and for that reason this book includes them as major characters. So too the unique cultures of Hoboken, New York, San Francisco, and Berkeley play major roles in this story.
The greatest influence on Lange's photography, however, was her historical era, so that also demands attention. Her career developed when the severe economic depression of the 1930s created a political opening for expanding and deepening American democracy. President Roosevelt's New Deal, responding to powerful grassroots social movements, made substantial progress in protecting the public health and welfare through regulation in the public interest, from securities and credit to wages and hours, and through institutionalizing aid to the needy, such as Social Security. Despite the miseries and fear it engendered, the Depression created a moment of idealism, imagination, and unity in Americans' hopes for their country. No photographer of the time, perhaps no artist of the time, did more than Lange to advance this democratic vision. Her photographs enlarged the popular understanding of who Americans were, providing a more democratic visual representation of the nation. Lange's America included Mormons, Jews, and evangelicals; farmers, sharecroppers, and migrant farmworkers; workers domestic and industrial, male and female; citizens and immigrants not only black and white but also Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese, notably the 120,000 Japanese Americans locked in internment camps during World War II. Late in life her democratic eye reached beyond the United States, as she photographed in Egypt, Japan, Indonesia, and many other parts of the developing world. There too her focus was democratic: she photographed primarily working people through her lens of respect for their labor, skills, and pride.
Most of Lange's photography was optimistic, even utopian, not despite but precisely through its frequent depictions of sadness and deprivation. By showing her subjects as worthier than their conditions, she called attention to the incompleteness of American democracy. And by showing her subjects as worthier than their conditions, she simultaneously asserted that greater democracy was possible.
Because her photography was both critical and utopian, its reputation and popularity have varied with dominant political moods. During the Depression of the 1930s her photographs became not only symbolic but almost definitive of a national agenda. The agenda aimed to restore prosperity and prevent further depressions, to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. It stood for national unity and mutual help, and delivered the message that we must indeed be our brothers' keepers. When a more conservative agenda came to dominate in the late 1940s and 1950s, Lange's photography became unfashionable, losing currency to more abstract, introspective, and self-referential art. When the civil rights movement inaugurated several decades of progressive activism, Lange's photography was again honored and emulated.
As I write at the end of 2008, another major depression makes Lange's photography as significant as ever, and for the same reasons. We have today the same need to see—not just look at, but see—the struggles of those on the economic bottom. And we also share some of the 1930s optimism, in our case built up through widespread, energetic participation in a presidential election, in which the central issue was whether government would shoulder its responsibility for promoting the health of the society.
It would be a mistake, however, to see Lange's photography as politically instrumental. Her greatest social purpose was to encourage visual pleasure. Her message—that beauty, intelligence, and moral strength are found among people of all circumstances—has profound political implications, of course. Her greatest commitment, though, was to what she called the "visual life." This meant discovering and intensifying beauty and our emotional response to it. Her words about this goal were sometimes corny, but her photographs were not. Although not a religious woman, she was rather spiritual, even slightly mystical in sensibility. Yet she never preached and she abhorred the sentimental.
Because Lange's subjects were often from humble surroundings, some have assumed that she herself came from among the disadvantaged. To the contrary, she had educated middle-class parents and operated for sixteen years a very successful, upscale portrait studio in San Francisco, catering to those of wealth and high culture. She was married for fifteen years to Maynard Dixon, a renowned painter. Articles about Lange and Dixon appeared on the society pages of San Francisco newspapers. Her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, was an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
There are other incongruities: This woman born and raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, and New York City became not only a Californian, not only a lover of western natural beauty, but an early environmentalist who dared to raise questions about nature-changing projects such as big dams, which almost no one challenged at the time. This quintessential city girl became a photographer who specialized in rural America and its farmworkers. She took on an unusually demanding job for the federal government, on the road for months at a time, as a disabled woman, lame from an attack of polio when she was seven years old. Hostile to "feminism," she nevertheless behaved like a feminist throughout her life.
Lange's is also the story of two great love affairs, leading to two unconventional marriages and a houseful of children, and these aspects of her life also carry historical significance. Her first husband, Maynard Dixon, enchanted her with his artistry, prestige, sex appeal, and irreverent personality. Together they were at the center of a bohemian but fashionable community of Bay Area artists and and art patrons. Reversing conventional marital roles, Lange became the breadwinner, while Dixon became increasingly dependent on her, not only financially but emotionally. She was a lone mother during Dixon's many months-long trips, endured his depressions and crude jokes, and lived with the knowledge (and their friends' awareness) of his extramarital affairs. Despite this, they were together for fifteen years, and it was hard for her to make a break. Her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, a progressive academic reformer, appears at first to be the anti-Dixon: conventional in appearance, starchy in conversation. Yet he and Lange created an extraordinary romantic, familial, and professional partnership, which lasted until her death thirty years later. In contrast to the archetypical story of a woman's path to liberation, in which she moves from financial dependence on a husband to independence, and in contrast to the story of many other women who sacrifice artistic aspiration to marriage and family, Lange was able to become an artist when she got a husband who could support her. When she was still unknown outside her circle of customers, Taylor thought her photography a work of genius and encouraged her to defy the constraints of wifehood and motherhood. A rare equality shaped their marriage. He taught her about the social problems she was photographing, she taught him to see. Lange's two marriages thus reveal, in their uniqueness, something about how a woman went about transcending the limits that held most women back from this level of achievement.
as i studied Dorothea Lange, I began to feel an affinity with her work through the concept "documentary," which applies to historical scholarship as well as to photography. There is no standard definition of documentary, but in photography, at least, it connotes both revealing the truth and promoting social justice. These goals fit my historical work. For me as for Lange, however, they need careful qualification. Neither photography nor history simply reports facts. Historians and photographers choose what to include and exclude in the pictures they shape, frame their subjects so as to reveal, emphasize, relate, or separate different elements, and use interpretive techniques to do this. Some will argue, of course, that historians and documentarists have no business promoting their opinions, but that argument rests on the false assumption that it is possible to avoid doing so. History and documentary photography necessarily proceed from a point of view shaped by social position, politics, religious conviction, and the thousands of other factors that mold every human being.
This does not mean that it is appropriate for historians or documentarists to shape their creations as they please, regardless of the evidence. They must try to limit their own biases and must never manipulate evidence or select only the evidence that supports their perspective. When using examples to make a larger point, historians and photographic documentarists must look for the representative, the paradigmatic rather than the exceptional. Yet they must highlight what is most significant and remove detail that impedes the clarity of the main point; if they did not, no one would read a history book and photographs would be incomprehensible. There are disagreements, of course: one person's extraneous detail might be another person's vital evidence. Lange's decisions in framing her photographs are not so different from historians' decisions in writing books or lesson plans.
The camera's capacity to replicate what the eye can see made it appear, originally, to be the ultimate documentary tool. It seemed to be a machine for exact replication, its products machine-made, until the myriad means of constructing photographs were widely understood. Invented just as art steered toward expressing a subjective vision, an individual inner consciousness, the camera seemed limited to representing that which is visible to the naked eye. Honoré Daumier said that "photography described everything and explained nothing." Photographers engaged in some self-delusion along these lines; Walker Evans called documentary "a stark record . . . [of] actuality untouched." Lange did not fuss about exact representation in her photography. Her experience as a portrait photographer left her at ease in retouching an errant hand or shadow, in asking her subjects to move to a different spot or position. Like an historian, she wanted her photographs to emphasize what she saw as the main point and to prevent her viewers from being distracted by details. In her portrait studio she wanted to reveal the inner, not the outer, life and character of her subjects, and she continued the search for hidden truths in her documentary work. She would have agreed with her contemporary, Hungarian modernist photographer László Moholy-Nagy, who said he loved photography because it showed that nothing was as it seemed. This is what she meant by the slogan she so often repeated, "A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera." Like many artists, she sought to disrupt conventionalized, clichéd perceptions by revealing less-noticed, often passed-over aspects of the world. Like many historians, I too accept that challenge.
Some artists and critics believed, and many still do, that documentary's instrumental purpose disqualifies it as art. Lange refused this dichotomy. She harbored no doubts about the compatibility of beauty and a concern for justice, or about her ability to fuse them. "I believe that what we call beautiful is generally a by-product. It happens when the thing is done very, very well." Her opinions seem to waver because she often used words loosely, connotatively rather than precisely. She kept on her bulletin board for many years a quotation from seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon: "The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention." Yet she insisted that "a documentary photograph is not a factual photograph." She did not see such statements as contradictory because she believed that the truth she sought had an ethical dimension.
One reason the artistic status of photography did not worry her is that for much of her career she did not think of herself as an artist. This humility came from the lingering cultural idea that artistry was an unwomanly aspiration; from her assumption that her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon, was the artist while she was but a craftswoman; from her experience of photography as a business; and, beginning in the 1930s, from her growing sense of social responsibility—she often described her documentary photographs as "evidence." She began as an artisan, continuing a tradition that did not distinguish between art and artisanship. (Her notion that beauty happens when "the thing is done very, very well" could be the artisanal credo.) Her modesty, however, was also sometimes a pose, a coyness, a way of avoiding competition with other photographers who did call their work art. It certainly evidenced no lack of ambition, since the standards she measured herself against were high. But her early disclaimer about artistic ambition, along with her distance from New York, insulated her from the pressures of competing in art as commerce and of seeking the approval of establishment art authorities. It gave her space to develop an autonomous method and style.
In particular, Lange resisted a central motif of photographic modernism, the use of the camera to express her own inner consciousness. To the best of my knowledge, she never made a self-portrait. This indifference to exploring her own inner life through photography appears, at first, surprising, considering that her success as a portrait photographer rested on her ability to express others' inner selves. She was hardly devoid of self-love or pride. I cannot explain this reticence; I can only report that she was driven by interest in the outside world. One of Lange's colleagues, documentary photographer Jack Delano, could have been speaking for her in saying, "I have always been motivated not by something inside me that needed to be expressed but rather by the wonder of something I see that I want to share with the rest of the world. I think of myself as a chronicler of my time and feel impelled to probe and probe into the depths of society in search of the essence of truth."
This inner world/outer world distinction needs to be qualified, however. What Lange saw in her subjects came partly from her own consciousness. Her portraits of sharecroppers and interned Japanese Americans express her emotions as well as theirs. Yet there is a durable distinction between gazes turned inward and those turned outward. Critic Linda Nochlin pointed out that artistic realism arose as a democratic form, originally reserved for representing the common people, deriving from the anti-aristocratic movements of the nineteenth century. Lange's realist approach was itself a democratic form, representing others, no matter how plebeian, as autonomous subjects, most certainly not as emanations of herself. She did this through portraiture. Her documentary photography was portrait photography. What made it different was its subjects, and thereby its politics. She looked at the poor as she had looked at the rich, never stereotyping, never pretending "to any easy understanding of her subjects," in the words of Getty museum curator Judith Keller. "Every Lange portrait subject is complex, and to some degree, inscrutable. . . . She never provides any superficial suggestion that we understand that person immediately." That final, impermeable layer of unknowability is the basis of mutual respect and, in turn, the basis of democracy.
for me as a historian, this book has been a new kind of undertaking. I am neither biographer nor photography expert, and most of my previous writing focused on the history of national policy issues. But once Lange came to my attention, I could not let her go. Lange's life trajectory, though nothing like mine, sounded and resounded themes that resonated with my concerns, forming an obbligato underlining significant episodes and problems in U.S. history.
The book I wrote just prior to this one constituted, perhaps, a step toward biography: By telling a story of events that happened in a small town in just a few days, what historians call a "microhistory," I used a tiny fragment of history to illuminate large themes and problems. Because this book has a larger time frame—two-thirds of the twentieth century—it is both "micro," as it is the story of only one person, and "macro," since it intersects with crucial events and problems of the twentieth-century United States: deadly polio epidemics, the development of bohemian and arts countercultures, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and McCarthyism, the transformation of agriculture by technology and corporatization, the birth of environmentalism, U.S. foreign assistance, and the civil rights movement. Moreover, her life affords a view of aspects of this history often unnoticed. Her 1920s San Francisco experience suggests that West Coast modernism, even in big cities, was significantly less urban than that in the East—or perhaps that New York's urbanity was only one model of city life. Her 1930s experience showed the centrality of the rural experience to the mid-century United States; by putting farmworkers at the center of Depression history, her photography exposes a major failure of the New Deal. Her experience of the diversity of the West Coast population made her photography particularly insightful about American race and racism. Her own life sensitized her to the inaccuracy of conventional ideals of womanhood. In these and other ways, Dorothea Lange's story forces us to rewrite a bit the history of twentieth-century America.
Lange confronted problems that still hound us today. She faced a conflict common to many women, between personal ambition and public responsibility on the one hand and commitment to children and to family life on the other. She dreamed of a democratic art, accessible to all, and for a brief, intense time, this dream seemed a possibility, because the federal government supported artists as a way of beating back the Depression; that support soon evaporated, however, and art became once again largely a luxury commodity. She endured several timeless personal hardships: disability, a disappearing father, an irresponsible husband, a delinquent son, a criminal brother. She suffered injustices—such as being fired from a beloved photography project although she produced, arguably, its greatest work; and experiencing the suppression of some of her most impassioned photography of protest, unpublished until forty years after her death. She coped with these and other problems in the way that most people do—with impatience, with ambivalence and compromises, with mistakes, with stoicism and irritability, and with resilience.
If Dorothea Lange is a hero, she was, like all real heroes, flawed. She made hard choices, at significant cost to herself and also to others. She behaved at times imperiously. As a mother, she made some dubious decisions. She flirted and maneuvered to promote her work. This is not a biography intended to sanctify her; perfect people belong in fables or hagiography, not in historical biography. My interest is in understanding and explaining, as best I can, the life of a woman embedded in the historical events of her time. This does not mean that I lack interest in Lange as an individual; to the contrary, I find myself often moved by her bravery and capacity for hard work, angry when she hurt others, pained when she was hurt, and awed by her talent, intelligence, and commitment.
The story I tell is limited not only by the areas of my expertise but also by the available source material. Lange did not document her own life. Until she was in her fifties, she did not save letters or keep a diary. Almost nothing that she wrote before 1935 has been preserved, so information about her life before that comes from recorded interviews with her carried out two or three decades later. Once she became a documentary photographer, of course, she created a great deal of evidence, in her field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, and captions. Like any other personal product, the photographs offer information not only about their subjects but also about their maker.
The lack of written evidence about Lange's early life gives her unusual power over its interpretation by a biographer. Forced to rely primarily on her
recollections as an older woman, the biographer receives accounts of her youthful experiences only as digested, interpreted, and rearranged by her memory—a notoriously unreliable source—and by her decisions about what to reveal. Like most people, she was an unreliable narrator of her life. I compensate for the fallibility of such recollections with devices well known to historians: noting contradictions in her testimony, comparing her recollections to those of others and to external evidence, reading between the lines, and noticing what she did not talk about. When she did speak, however, Lange's voice, in words as in images, was a strong one. As a result, I may at times accept her account of herself, however unconsciously, when I should not. This fact does not make the biography more celebratory, though, because she is hard on herself in the areas she speaks about most passionately—her photographic achievement. The risk comes from her silences. I try to fill them with what I have learned from those who knew her, but mysteries will remain.
For lange, as for most photographers, the most powerful tool was her eye. She learned to use it from her mother and grandmother, her early photographer employers, and from two master artistic observers, her husband, Maynard Dixon, and her close friend, photographer Imogen Cunningham. Cunningham made exquisite close-ups of flowers in which we can see every filament and anther on every stamen. Dixon's prowess as a draftsman was one of the artistic wonders of West Coast art: He could look at a tree briefly and then, from memory, draw not just any tree but that tree; he could see the muscular movement on a horse in motion.
All good photography requires visual discipline and imagination, of course. Lange's particular visual intelligence focused on people. In some of her portraits, she seems to have telepathically connected with her subjects' emotions, perhaps because they trusted her enough to reveal something of themselves. That trust was repaid in one valuable currency: Lange's subjects are always good-looking. This was the bread and butter of her studio photography business, of course, but it also became central to her documentary photography. Lange made her documentary subjects handsome not through flattery so much as respect, and when her subjects were farmworkers long deprived of education, health, rest, and nutrition, her respect for them became a political statement. Its effectiveness was doubled because the looks of her subjects drew viewers to her photography, allowed them to take pleasure in it even as it documented misery and injustice. Her photographs delivered both beauty and a call for empathy.
The photographer's eye is a skill, not a physiological organ. Lange loved quotations pointing out that we see with our brains—and have to be taught. She copied out "Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon. . . . We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is. The artist is a professional see-er." Her assistants, her family, her friends—all agreed that she taught them, or tried to teach them, how to see. She believed that sight, like most art, consists of 99 percent hard work. The work never ends: The photographer is "continually training his power of vision," she said, "so that he actually knows if the telegraph pole has two cross beams and how many glass cups . . . the things we don't look at anymore."
The worst enemy of seeing is conventionalization, Lange knew, and overcoming it requires vigilance. The more we see the ordinary, the less we notice, because our expectation of what we will see overpowers actual observation, and because we hurry. Skilled seeing requires emptying the mind of false and clichéd responses, responses that the human brain always creates. One neuropsychologist estimates that visual perception is 90 percent memory, less than 10 percent sensory. Perception is thus mostly inference, and a great photographer wants observers not to infer, but to see anew. Lange struggled against conventionalizing in her studio portraiture no less than in her documentary. She criticized one of her own photographs by saying, "That's a passing glance. I know I didn't see it." Lange disdained a photograph that failed to bust through commonsense expectations.
Her commitment to seeing derived not only from artistic openness but also from refusal to pass by uninvolved. The effort of sight fused, for her, with a sense of responsibility to understand and act on the world. Visual imagery can, of course, serve to inflame the worst nationalistic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist passions. But Lange also believed that pictures can imbue respect and open-mindedness, qualities necessary for democracy. She believed that an imagery of democracy could contribute to building political democracy and that visual education could contribute to an active democratic citizenship.
The responsibility she felt was not to provide solutions to problems, however; she told her students that documentary photographs should ask questions, not provide answers. It is the questioning aspect of Lange's photographs that remains animated today. Many documentary photographs denounce injustice and suffering. The very best are also wondering. They suggest that the photographer does not understand everything going on in them. There remains a mystery, and this may be their most respectful and challenging message.
Reprinted from Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon. Copyright 2009 by Linda Gordon. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.