Posted in African Americans, Great Depression, homelessness, Japanese Americans, marginalization, material culture, migrants, New Deal, photographs, propaganda, racism, reformers

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. London; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Linda Gordon is one of only three historians to have won the Bancroft Prize twice, one of which was for Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits.  In this book, Gordon traces the life and photography of Lange by interweaving historical biography with contextual readings of Lange’s photographs.  Gordon reminds us that behind every photograph lies the person whose viewpoint framed the shot.  This is the first book that I have read about Dorothea Lange that encompassed her entire life rather than just focusing on her work during the Great Depression.  In addition, Gordon reveals the photographer’s growth and resilience through Lange’s relationships, personal tragedies, and professional setbacks.  A prime example appears near the center of the book, where Gordon illuminates Lange’s lessons in “participatory democracy” from her second husband Paul Schuster Taylor.[1]  Gordon successfully portrays Lange as a passionate “photographer of democracy.”

Lange is most well-known for her photography during her time with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and specifically for the iconic image Migrant Mother.[2]  Gordon astutely notes that this image seems to represent the nation during The Depression, much like Marianne stands for France: “Migrant Mother is the enduring, ultimately invincible nation enduring a terrible collective tragedy.”[3]  Gordon shows that even though the original intent of the of the FSA’s photography project was to publicize the value of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lange was able to raise public awareness of and sympathy for poor farm families through her moving photography.  The same empathetic eye that earned her such acclaim for her FSA photographs caused her work to be marginalized following her photography of Japanese American internees and West Coast defense workers.

Gordon researched a wide range of documents, including photographs, letters, taped interviews with Lange, FBI reports, newspapers, and trade magazines. Numerous photographs by Lange are printed throughout the book. Gordon tells American history through Lange’s photography.  Lange’s biography is the focus, but important historical events are narrated through her work.  Gordon reveals racism related to immigration through Lange and Taylor’s work.[4]

[1] Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (London; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), 157.

[2] Ibid., xii.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 149-50.