Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

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Article Reviews
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits By Linda Gordon (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)

In the 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration wanted to show America the faces of millions of farmworkers devastated by the Great Depression. This New Deal agency hired a small band of photographers to take pictures of Mexican migrant workers, African American sharecroppers, and Dust Bowl refugees.

Along with photographic heavyweights Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, the FSA hired Dorothea Lange, and it was her photographs in particular that helped win the hearts and minds of millions of Americans by showing them the beauty of the nation’s down and out.

In Linda Gordon’s engaging and richly detailed biography we learn about Lange’s struggles with childhood polio and her efforts to succeed in a male-dominated profession.

But mostly Gordon introduces us to Lange’s skill as a photographer who could see and bring out the dignity and courage of her subjects, a skill that was essential to her work for the FSA. For instead of miserable, beaten-down objects of pity or idealized martyrs, Lange’s portraits of pickers and sharecroppers capture their individuality, stoicism, and simple humanity. This is strikingly true in “Migrant Mother,” Lange’s celebrated portrait of migrant farmworker Florence Thompson and her three children crouched inside the flap of a camp tent. What ones sees is the profoundly human and sympathetic face of someone facing life’s troubles with all the courage and dignity possible.

In her work for the FSA, in a later series of photographs of interned Japanese Americans, and in a number of photo essays she did for Life magazine, Lange helped her audience see the dignity of people of every class and race, making her, as Gordon says, “America’s preeminent photographer of democracy.” With millions of Americans homeless, out of work, and uninsured, perhaps we could use a fresh look through her lens.