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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you have an image of what the Great Depression looked like, what you see in your mind's eye may be a photo taken by Dorothea Lange.

Ms. LINDA GORDON (Author, "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits"): One of her favorite sayings was: A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.

INSKEEP: Linda Gordon wrote a new biography of the photographer. And for our series American Lives, she came by to talk about Dorothea Lange and the images she left behind.

Ms. GORDON: Probably the most famous is one that has been identified with the title Migrant Mother, although that's not the title she gave it, which I think for many people is their leading image of the Depression.

INSKEEP: I want to describe it here. Now, it's at NPR.org for those who want to take a look at it. But this photograph shows a woman. It's 1936. It's in California. She's sitting there. She's got her hand cupped up to her chin. She's looking off into the distance. A couple of kids are embracing her, almost as if they're crying and she's got a very steady gaze, but a lined face. This is not that old a woman, but a woman who's had a hard time.

Ms. GORDON: That's right. She was only in her 30s. You know, within that anxiety that is written all over her face you can also see that she's actually a very beautiful woman, and that's really part of what Lange's genius was about, that she could make pictures of very poor people, people very, very hard hit, and still make them extremely attractive individuals.

INSKEEP: What was her name?

Ms. GORDON: Her name was Florence Thompson.

INSKEEP: Now, let's remember this time in which Florence Thompson lived and was photographed by Dorothea Lange. It's the mid-1930s. The Great Depression is on. What was it that drew Dorothea Lange to begin photographing people in rural areas?

Ms. GORDON: Dorothea Lange was a portrait photographer and she ran a very, very upscale portrait studio in San Francisco. Then she was offered an extraordinary job, working for the Farm Security Administration, which is one of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agencies.

With the help of her husband, who was an expert on agricultural economics, she actually became quite expert. She read a great deal before she went on these photographic outings. She wrote captions for all of her photographs and she was furious all her life that her photographs were never published with the captions. And so the photographs became anonymous.

INSKEEP: Why were they published that way, and how were they published at all?

Ms. GORDON: They were the property of the federal government. From the Washington headquarters, they were distributed free of charge to all kinds of newspapers, magazines, et cetera. And Dorothea Lange's were always the most popular, the most in demand. And I think the reason is that she was really always a portrait photographer and she understood that it was portraits of individuals that would have far more impact emotionally than pictures showing eroded land or the dust storm.

INSKEEP: Well now, let's talk about that, because you mentioned that she wrote captions for these pictures which were never published, which I would think would have a number of effects, one of them being that instead of Florence Thompson being a specific person within a specific point in time, she becomes more of an icon, an image on which we project our own meanings.

Ms. GORDON: That's right. Obviously there were great gains from that because it became so symbolic of a whole period of time. But at the same time, that image, for example, has been used in many, many different advertisements, some of them quite comical. You see her photograph - the wrinkles airbrushed out in ads for perfume, but in the other direction the Black Panthers put an afro on her and used her on the cover of one of their pamphlets.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) Okay.

Ms. GORDON: That kind of thing infuriated Lange. She actually hated the iconization of her photographs.

INSKEEP: Was she obsessed with her art?

Ms. GORDON: Absolutely. She had a hard life in many ways. She was a disabled woman. She'd had polio at age seven and she ended with a withered lower right leg and a kind of twisted and crabbed foot. She could not put her heel down as she walked, but she was an incredibly strong woman physically. She could hike for days. She climbed on top of her car to photograph. She was really a very ambitious and driven woman about photography at a time when women were really not supposed to be that way.

INSKEEP: What were the effects of that on her family?

Ms. GORDON: Well, when she took this job for the Farm Security Administration, she had to leave her children for long periods of time, even for a couple of months, and Paul Taylor was her partner, as well as her husband. And whenever possible, he was on the road with her.

She knew - she sensed as soon as she got this job offer that it was the chance of a lifetime. And she was correct because if it hadn't been for that federal government job, we would never have heard of Dorothea Lange.

INSKEEP: Who did take care of her kids when she was gone?

Ms. GORDON: She placed them in what we would call foster care, something that was very haunting to her all her life, because her children were very young when she began to do this. But I think we have to understand it in terms of the context of the times, when it was not quite so shocking to use foster care.

INSKEEP: You know, as you describe her personality, I'm reminded of another figure we're discussing in this American Lives series: Theodore Roosevelt, who was considered a weakling as a child and was driven to great exertion and he was so incredibly ambitious that he left his family behind to go to war even though his wife was ill and he wrote later that he would have left her deathbed. I mean it seems like that same kind of ambition drove Dorothea Lange toward photography.

Ms. GORDON: That's true, but it was so much more unusual among women, so much less acceptable. I mean, for example, the children, who I interviewed many decades later, they still feel resentment about this. They were quite honest with me about it. But it's entirely toward their mother. They don't blame their father at all.

INSKEEP: So when you look at a photograph of Dorothea Lange's face and study it the way she studied so many faces, what do you see in that face?

Ms. GORDON: Well, you see a bit of what I never saw in person but I've heard about from so many people, and that is her charisma. One of the reasons that she was such a good portrait photographer is that she had an extraordinary power to connect with all sorts of people, to draw them out. But you also see a woman who's very, very contained.

A very interesting thing about Dorothea Lange is that with one dramatic exception she never made a self-portrait. She kept her private life very private.

INSKEEP: What did the self portrait show?

Ms. GORDON: This is really an extraordinary story. She - this was in the 1950s. She was teaching photography. She had an assignment that she liked to give to the students, which was to bring in photographs of, quote, "where you live." And by that she did not mean your house or your apartment. She meant something very profound about what your life is really about or what you most feel.

And one year the students challenged her to bring in such a portrait of herself, where she lived. And what she brought was a photograph of her twisted foot.

INSKEEP: Linda Gordon is the author of "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits." Thanks very much.

GORDON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Our conversations on American lives continue tomorrow with an American who served his country, and betrayed it.

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