The PhotoBook Journal

November 20, 2009

Dorothea Lange – A Life Beyond Limits


Copyright Linda Gordon & estate of Dorothea Lange, 2009, courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company

I had been aware of Dorothea Lange’s immense photographic body of work during the FSA (Farm Security Agency) in the 1930’s, primarily her iconic images of Migrant Mother, White Angel Breadline, which I thought was a FSA photograph (it is not) and Plantation Overseer. When I had an opportunity to quickly thumb through Linda Gordon’s recent biography of Lange at a bookstore, I realized that there was a lot more that I did not know about her and her body of work, thus I decided to acquire this book. And I am glad I did.

Linda Gordon had earlier written an account of Dorothea Lange’s previously unpublished photographs stemming from her government commissioned photographs to document the Japanese-American Interment at the beginning of World War II in 1942. Lange’s photographs were buried in government archives until Gordon with Gary Okihiro published their book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (published by W.W. Norton) in 2006. Fortunately, Lange’s work from this project is summarized in one chapter of the current book, but it was Gordon’s work on Impounded which later evolved into this larger and more extensive biography. What resulted was an “unfamiliar story about a familiar person”.

Gordon is a social historian, not a biographer, and of the ten previous books she has published this is the first complete biography of a person. Gordon is neither a photographer nor a writer about photography, which provides her with a wonderful outside perspective on the world of documentary and fine art photography. As a historian, Gordon weaves a complex tapestry that results in a rich contextual framework that attempts to describe Lange’s cultural, sociological, economic, political and family relationships.

This book has a strong sense of objectivity, revealing sources that may have a bias, which Gordon freely discusses. Gordon recognizes that as an historian, she is also like most photographers and has a subjection point of view. I think that Lange’s social consciousness, environmental empathy, liberal attitude and what she accomplished as a woman in this time period appeals to Gordon are some of the underlying reasons that Gordon chose to write her first biography about Lange.

Lange has become revered for her stamina, environmentalism, democratic vision, balanced viewpoint of man-kind, high standard for what constitutes a documentary photographic endeavor, humanity, all in the face of social and cultural bias. Lange was also human and had her flaws and weaknesses, which Gordon reveals with balance and sensitivity. As to Lange, we begin to understand some of her physical hardships (polio at age seven that resulted in a bad leg), emotional hardships (thought that her father had abandoned her mother, resulting in Dorothea rejecting her last name of Nutzhorn and adopting her mothers maiden name of Lange), cultural hardships (male bias against women, perhaps even more so for an assertive professional woman; expected to be full time housewives and sole responsibility for caring for the children) and relationship hardships (could be very demanding, controlling and assertive).

And yet Lange had the tenacity and fortitude to create a professional career with a successful professional portrait studio in San Francisco for 15 years, government photographer from 1935 – 1945 whom in the process established a high standard for documentary work, and finally a freelance documentary photographer until her death in 1965 from cancer stemming from a polio relapse. Meanwhile she juggled a large and expanding family, two sons from her first marriage to the artist Maynard Dixon and three step children from her second marriage to the economist Paul Taylor. Lange created an immense body of photographic work while both of her husbands were seemingly totally deferential to her for the care and raising of the children as well as the maintenance of the household. A conflicted life for a self-professed bohemian in the late 1920’s, though in retrospect, may have been one of the original role model’s for the future super-mom syndrome.

Gordon provides vignettes of many well known photographers whose lives intersected Lange’s, including Arnold Genthe, Ansel Adams, Marion Post Wolcott, Margaret Bourke-White, John Collier, Alfred Stieglitz, Roger Sturtevant, Willard Van Dyke, Lewis Hine, Rondal Partridge, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Clarence White, Jack Delano, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans as well as few non-photographers who have had an impact on photography, such as Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, Roy Styker, and John Steinbeck. Although Lange’s experience with the FSA is the most extensively described, there are also the other events in her life, including the famous S.F. Bay area f/64 group (but not a member), Life magazine assignments (two of the four were published), Guggenheim fellowship (interrupted by WW II and never completed), the suppression of her documentation of the Japanese American internment in 1942 and the MoMA solo exhibition that she helped design but passed away just prior to the exhibition opening in 1965.

As Gordon concludes;

Yet her photographs have had an extraordinary impact even in the most prosperous of times; they may well live forever. There will always be a need to be reminded that beauty can be found in unlikely places, that we must learn to see beyond the limits of the conventional and the expected. Such indelible images mean more, not less, if we understand how they came to exist. They were produced not by a faultless genius who could remain about the wounds, failings and sins that afflict the rest of us, but by a fallible and hardworking woman. They were produced also by historical times she lived in, times optimistic and pessimistic, times that honored generous, compassionate, and respectful impulses of Americans and time that encouraged the closed, fearful, and intolerant. Lange’s photographs will always evoke the best of American democracy.

This book is elegantly written, barely bordering on scholarly, sometimes slightly obscure, but still easily read and moves at a nice pace. The book is a chronological description of the Lange’s life, career, relationships, with snippets that glace forward to provide clarity and maintain a line of thinking to a conclusive point.

The interior photographic plates provide a nice representation of her photographs, while the remaining illustrative photographs within the text printed on the standard pages are marginal. The photographic selection is a broad mix of the classic iconic photographs with those that are not as well known. As a extensive biographical book, it contains Lange’s photographic captions, footnotes and references, listing of photographic sources and a detailed index.

If you enjoy a good biography, photographer or not, you will probably appreciate Gordon’s retelling of Lange’s life.

by Douglas Stockdale







  1. Thanks for this review. Great work. I’ll try to find this book on Amazon. 😀

    Comment by Paulo Sacramento — November 21, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  2. […] Linda Gordon biography of Dorothea Lange on the way to Rome, collecting my notes and publishing my review while in Manchester. But I think that I might need to re-read this book again some time in the near […]

    Pingback by Back home again, again « Singular Images — November 23, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  3. […] Biography; Dorothea Lange by Linda Gordon […]

    Pingback by Recommended PhotoBooks in 2009 « The PhotoBook — December 24, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: