A Life Beyond Limits
By Linda Gordon
Illustrated. 536 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $35
Any list of the most enduring American photographs of the past century is likely to include Joe Rosenthal’s “Flag Raising on Iwo Jima”; John Filo’s image of a young woman at Kent State kneeling in anguish over the body of a mortally wounded college protester; and Richard Drew’s “Falling Man,” showing the fatal descent of a solitary figure from a high floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. But perhaps the most iconic image — gracing textbooks, hanging from dormitory walls, affixed to political posters, even adorning a postage stamp — is Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” taken at a California farmworkers camp in 1936. The photo shows a woman nurturing three young children, one in her arms, the others leaning on her for support. Her manner is strong and protective, yet her face shows the worry of someone overpowered by events beyond her control. She has trekked west from the ravaged Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, finding fieldwork where she can. Gazing into space, she represents the spirit of America itself in the midst of history’s worst economic disaster — the mix of courage and compassion that will lead a proud, invincible nation to endure.
“Migrant Mother” has a serendipitous history, as Linda Gordon makes clear in “Dorothea Lange,” an absorbing, exhaustively researched and highly political biography of a transformative figure in the rise of modern photojournalism. Lange had been hired by the Farm Security Administration, one of the New Deal’s more progressive agencies, to document the plight of farmworkers in the Great Depression, a mandate that covered everyone from Southern black sharecroppers to Dust Bowl refugees to Mexican-American migrants in the fields stretching from Texas to California. Led by Roy Stryker, a phenomenal talent spotter, the F.S.A. photography project schooled the likes of Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn. Most came from urban backgrounds. “I didn’t know a mule from a tractor,” Lange admitted. What bound them together was their devotion to the principles of social justice represented by the New Deal.
Lange’s territory included all of California, which she covered by automobile. Driving north on Route 101 on a miserable winter’s day, she passed a hand-lettered sign reading “Pea-Pickers Camp” near the town of Nipomo. Lange drove on for 20 miles before something pulled her back. On the job for almost a year, she had come to understand the rhythms of migrant life, the periods of physically exhausting labor followed by even longer (unpaid) periods of emotionally draining inactivity. In the Nipomo camp, Lange met Florence Thompson, 32, the mother of 11 children, five born out of wedlock. The family was in desperate straits, living off stolen vegetables from the fields. Lange took a half-dozen photos, putting Thompson and her children in different poses. She took the photos from just outside their tent, even moving a pile of soiled laundry aside, so as not to embarrass the subjects by noting their squalid living conditions. (Though Gordon doesn’t mention it, Lange may have decided to use only three of the children to avoid the public perception of “Okies” as irresponsible “white trash.”) For the key photo, she “made the unusual decision to ask the two youngsters leaning on their mother to turn their faces away from the camera,” Gordon writes. “She was building the drama and impact of the photograph by forcing the viewer to focus entirely on Florence Thompson’s beauty and anxiety, and by letting the children’s bodies, rather than their faces, express their dependence on their mother.”
Gordon, who teaches history at New York University, is a leading scholar of gender and family in modern American life. (I teach part of the year at N.Y.U. but have rarely crossed paths with her.) Not surprisingly, she spends a fair amount of space on Lange’s personal life and role as a female photographer in a male-dominated profession. Born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1895 to middle-class German-American parents, Lange faced two handicaps as a child: a severe bout with polio that left her with a permanently weakened leg and an absentee father who abandoned the family and never returned. As Gordon sees it, Lange overcame the physical handicap a lot more easily than the emotional one, though each increased her empathy for people on the margins of society. Showing little interest in school, Lange apprenticed herself to a string of portrait photographers in New York, where she learned the mechanics of the trade and the art of bonding seamlessly with her subject. “Photography was a new profession and therefore not defined as a uniquely male skill or tradition,” Gordon says. In San Francisco, where Lange moved in 1918, she created a portrait studio “successful beyond her dreams.”
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