Dorothea Lange was an elite portrait photographer, a government-funded propagandist, an artist, and, most famously, a photojournalist who helped invent documentary photography. Like a poet laureate of poverty, she created some of her most enduring images while on the federal payroll. But if her diverse roles and aspirations could be mutually reinforcing, they also produced irony and contradiction, as Linda Gordon skillfully recounts in Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.

Depicting migrant farm workers struggling with the Depression, for example, Lange drew on her training as a portraitist for society families to advance the progressive agenda of her employer, the Farm Security Administration. Her humanism and keen visual intelligence converge in such photographs as Migrant Mother (1936), in which a pea picker literally supports three grimy children who fill the frame. The woman’s handsome brow is creased with worry, and her eyes seem to search for help that may not come. The photograph’s emotional underpinning is equal parts hope and despair. Given a chance, Lange seems to suggest, this woman could transcend the circumstances that confine her. Documentary realism? High art? The iconic image is indisputably both—not to mention powerful propaganda for government aid.

On the other hand, the U.S. Army should have known better when it hired Lange in 1942 to document its confinement of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. What were those military bureaucrats thinking? One would like to have been a fly on the wall during their personnel discussions: “Hey, what about hiring that lady photographer who did the picture of the mother and kids? We’ll be deporting lots of families, so she’d be perfect!” Even the assiduous Gordon, the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University and a past winner of the Bancroft Prize, hasn’t managed to penetrate that mystery. “I have never been able to find any documentation explaining this decision,” she writes, “but my guess is that they thought a photographic record could protect against false allegations of mistreatment and violations of international law. Whoever made the decision probably knew nothing about the content of her work, only that an excellent government photographer lived in California and was available.”

Despite her opposition to the forced-relocation program, Lange took the assignment and ran with it. Operating mostly within government strictures (no photos, for example, of barbed wire or machine-gun towers), she subverted government aims. Working sixteen-hour days, often for seven days a week, over four and a half months, Lange produced wrenching images of the deportees, stripped of home, job, and identity. Alongside the critique was a chronicle of survival and community-building. At the camp at Manzanar, California, writes Gordon, Lange showed how “internees worked to create civilization, their ingenuity recalling that of migrant farmworkers.”

Lange’s internment photographs were so incendiary, and so useless as propaganda, that they were impounded by the government. The negatives, fortunately, survived undamaged. According to Gordon, few of the images were seen until 2006, when she and co-editor Gary Okihiro published Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of the Japanese American Internment.

That work cemented Gordon’s fascination with Lange. Though neither an expert in photography nor an experienced biographer, Gordon saw within Lange’s life reflections of social problems that still bedevil us. Lange, she says, dreamed of “a democratic art, accessible to all,” and “endured several timeless personal hardships: disability, a disappearing father, an irresponsible husband, a delinquent son, a criminal brother.”

Other challenges were more specifically linked to her gender. Lange, who was born in 1895, married twice, and had two sons and four stepchildren. For much of her life, says Gordon, she “faced a conflict common to many women, between personal ambition and public responsibility on the one hand and commitment to children and to family life on the other.” Although Lange never embraced the rhetoric of feminism—she died in 1965, and her career fell between the first- and second-wave iterations of the movement—she made tough-minded and arguably feminist choices, including periodically “placing out” her children with strangers in order to go on the road for her photography. And even as she sacrificed her family life, Lange was consistently paid less than her male peers.

Gordon’s judgments of Lange are tempered by ambivalence. Despite her feminist inclinations, and her knowledge that Lange’s achievement would have been constrained by domesticity, she faults her subject’s less-than-inspired mothering. (In interviews, Lange’s descendants recount the impact of her absences and her imperious manner.)

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a CJR contributing editor.