Review: 'Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits' by Linda Gordon

"Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits"
By Linda Gordon
536 pp., W. W. Norton & Company, $35

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those who make pictures don't always speak or write very openly about their work or themselves. And so writing about visual artists-or musicians, for the matter-presents would-be biographers with rather a vexing problem. The work speaks for itself, artists have been known to say. It's a noble sentiment, and occasionally even an honest one. But most of the time it's a transparent ruse to subordinate the life to the art, if not erase the life altogether. Who, after all, wants to be remembered as a philandering Benzedrine gobbler, instead of as the world's greatest abstract expressionist?

Of course it's possible to be both. Indeed, many of us wouldn't have our artists any other way-demons in the bedroom, angels in the studio. But what to make of an extravagantly gifted artist whose agonizing personal struggles invite shocks of recognition rather than squeals of voyeuristic delight?

The photographer Dorothea Lange is such a figure, a woman whose quietly searing depictions of the American Dream gone awry reflect her own innermost struggles and resonate powerfully with our own. Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University, shows how in her arresting new biography of Lange. In Gordon's telling, Lange emerges as something substantially greater than America's pioneering photo-chronicler of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. She becomes "America's preeminent photographer of democracy," equal parts celebrant and critic of our fondest ideals.

Even those unfamiliar with Lange's name will surely recognize her iconic 1936 photograph "Migrant Mother," which, for better or worse, remains her signature work. This stark triumph of photorealism still haunts viewers. But "Migrant Mother" was hardly her darkest record of America's darkest moments. During the Second World War, Lange documented the interment of Japanese Americans in some 800 heartrending photographs. Suppressed by the federal government, these photographs remained buried in the National Archives, all but forgotten, until 2006.

By any standard, Lange led a less exotic, less conspicuously troubled life than many of her species. If anything, she seems something of an anti-artist, or at least a slighted one: the good (if moody) girl who kept her nose to the grindstone and suffered silently while the bad boys raised hell-and, of course, made off with all the laurels. (Ansel Adams's work would fetch previously unheard-of sums at auction years before Lange's.)

Perhaps inevitably, people have made a proto-feminist and a working-class heroine of Lange. She was neither, Gordon says. But she was a woman in a man's world, and this brought disappointment and irritation aplenty. Lange endured her share of heartache. Gordon writes compassionately-never sensationally-about the psychic suffering that bedeviled and inspired her by turns: a fatherless childhood, a failed marriage, ruinous affairs, self-doubt, punishing bouts depression.

Regardless of her gender and emotional constitution, Lange had good reason to be frustrated. She began taking photographs before photography really qualified as art, and before it came to be prized as political commentary. Lange positioned herself squarely among those who pursued the latter, presumably higher calling. Yet one suspects that she resented having to choose between art and activism. Forced to defend her outspokenness on economic inequities, Lange cast herself in opposition to men no more talented that she. "Are you still worshipping the same Gods of Beauty and Truth?" Lange once snapped at Ansel Adams, who liked to bait her by questioning her commitment to social justice.

In its grace, precision, and infinite subtlety, Gordon's biography resembles Lange herself. Indeed, the whole is founded on a bedrock of human decency that Lange would have admired. "I am neither biographer nor photography expert," Gordon writes in her introduction. If so, the book is better for it. Whatever Gordon calls herself, it takes uncommon insight and self-awareness to write this persuasively about a taciturn woman of labyrinthine complexity.

Lange certainly possessed genius, and she could no more have divined its ultimate source than anyone. But she didn't shroud photography in mystery, invest it with a magical quality that made her appear rarified. She wasn't ashamed of hard work; she acknowledged with a blithe shrug the fiercely guarded dirty secret of the artist's trade: discipline and relentlessness tends to carry the day.

If photographers weren't widely considered artists, they hankered nonetheless for the hallmarks of artistic success. Gordon doesn't mince words. Lange, she writes, "would have enjoyed the money . . . and the fame . . . she savored recognition as much as anyone."

It wasn't to be. Lange died in 1965, aged 70, a relative unknown outside photographic circles. Would she have fared differently, somehow better, in our own time? Would she have relished the celebrity and prosperity of a Mapplethorpe or a Leibovitz? Probably, and why not? Yet these may be the wrong questions to ask of Lange, whose life story isn't entirely a story about an unknown artist dying before she could see her name in lights.

Gordon leaves us to ponder bigger questions about the value and meaning of art of over time-and about the exquisite ordinariness that resides deep in the heart of our least ordinary fellow humans.

Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University.

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