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Their lives, her camera, full of passion

Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer, Edited by Pierre Borhan, Bulfinch Press: 264 pp., $75

October 20, 2002|Linda Gordon | Linda Gordon is writing a biography of Dorothea Lange. Her most recent book is "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction." She teaches history at NYU.

Dorothea Lange's Depression photographs -- a worried, pensive Okie mother with her children, discouraged farmers squatting in the dust, black and white sharecroppers, Mexican and Filipino lettuce workers -- are familiar even to those who don't know her name.

Because Lange was a photographer of unusual emotional power, a few of her pictures were reproduced so often that they became virtual cliches. They served as 1930s icons of "the deserving poor." They built support for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal and inspired "The Grapes of Wrath." But thousands of never-published Lange masterpieces hide in folders and on microfilm in the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the Oakland Museum of California. Her work also includes exotic portraits of elegant women, imperious portraits of powerful men, romantic portraits of Pueblo Indians, shimmering abstractions, glimpses of tender and painful intimate moments, and a series that denounced the Japanese American internment during World War II as explicitly as a legal brief.

French photo curator Pierre Borhan's new book, "Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer," demonstrates Lange's breadth by joining some of her most famous images with some little-known facets of her work. (An exhibit of Lange's work called "About Life: The Photographs of Dorothea Lange" is now at the Getty Center through Feb. 9, 2003.)

Lange, born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1895, went to the Bay Area in 1919 and never left. She constructed a life with mystical edges, as when at age 14, having never held a camera, she told her mother that she wanted to be a photographer, believing that a disability from childhood polio gave her an almost telepathic connection with those who suffered. But mainly she constructed a life through discipline and patient work. First married to Western painter Maynard Dixon, she supported their family with her photography studio in San Francisco. Her insightful and slightly eccentric portraits made her the favored portraitist of the city's elite -- the Fleishhackers, Zellerbachs, Strausses -- as well as the artistic elite, such as Yehudi Menuhin, Mischa Elman, Ernst Bloch.

In these San Francisco years, lasting until 1935, she lived a bohemian life, socializing with her husband's artist friends in cheap Italian restaurants, venturing on her own to San Quentin to photograph framed union organizer Tom Mooney, hosting Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they visited.

As the Depression hit, her rich clients and her marriage began to seem confining beyond her endurance. She started to move around San Francisco, photographing darker, poorer, more intense scenes. These pictures came to the attention of Berkeley economist/reformer Paul Schuster Taylor, who hired her to illustrate his exposes of the brutal working and living conditions of migrant farm workers. Lange fell doubly in love, with Taylor and with the challenges and rewards of this so-called documentary photography (a phrase she hated).

From 1935 to 1945, she did most of her work for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, documenting -- along with Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn and others -- the Dust Bowl, agricultural poverty, and, later, wartime defense workers. She slowed her pace considerably for the next 20 years, fighting illness, but she turned out superb, lasting work until her death in 1965.

Borhan has made a beautiful book. The heavyweight production, with thick, creamy paper and 260 elegantly printed photographs, presents both the complexity and the unity of Lange's work. Including some of her slightly eccentric studio portraits allows us to see that her "documentary" work trained on the poor the same respect and insight that she had afforded the rich. Snapshots she took of her children running around naked hint at her bohemian sensibility and, as critic Sally Stein has argued, her extraordinary sensitivity to bodies -- some of her most revealing images show only people's backs.

Her first street pictures, from 1933 and 1934, merged this uncanny feel for the language of face, body and gesture with classic composition and concise communication of social context. Always a portraitist, she never sought to capture her subjects unaware, as a photojournalist might. She felt that her subjects needed time to relax into their natural body language; she often recorded their histories in a notebook. She required their collaboration to make photographs, she said.

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