At the same time, Gordon situates Lange in a social context that offered little support to women seeking artistic careers. The lives of many of Lange’s peers “highlight the conflicting pressures women faced,” Gordon writes. Tina Modotti, a lover and student of Edward Weston’s, began brilliantly, but faded out, as did Margrethe Mather, another Weston collaborator. The same could be said of Alma Lavenson, who had one-woman shows at two major museums in 1933 before devoting herself primarily to marriage and family.

Lange, an attractive and charismatic figure, was loved and mentored by men—older men in particular. Gordon can’t quite make up her mind whether to read those relationships through the prism of Lange’s longing for her father, Henry Nutzhorn, who essentially disappeared when she was twelve. That would be “easy, perhaps facile,” the biographer writes, while offering another, less convincing, hypothesis: “Her tastes and conversation were becoming sophisticated, and possibly intimidating to men her own age.” In the end, Gordon herself succumbs, describing both of Lange’s husbands as father figures.

In any case, Gordon uncovers new details about Nutzhorn’s desertion of his family, which was apparently triggered by a criminal indictment for his financial dealings. “My best guesses,” she writes, “are that Henry gambled with money he had embezzled, or with a client’s money, or enticed clients into scams, or entered seamy deals that clients offered him.” His wife, Joan Lange Nutzhorn, tried for years to make the fading marriage work, before finally divorcing him.

Lange adopted her mother’s maiden name and moved from Hoboken, New Jersey, to San Francisco, where she established a successful portrait photography business. In 1920, she married Maynard Dixon, an artist with a love of the desert West who was twenty years her senior. Theirs was a passionate and somewhat bohemian union, complicated by Dixon’s daughter from a previous marriage, the demands of caring for their two sons, and his philandering.

By contrast, Paul Schuster Taylor, who would become Lange’s second husband in 1935 and a lifelong collaborator, was “a stiff and slightly ponderous suit-and-tie professor of economics” at the University of California at Berkeley. Just as Dixon “introduced her to a world of art and nature,” Gordon writes, “so Paul taught Dorothea how to think critically and systematically about society, economy, and the environment.” The two fell in love on the road: Lange would photograph California farm workers while Taylor interviewed them.

The onset of the Great Depression, as well as her travels with Dixon, had already coaxed Lange out of her studio, and she made some of her first great photos, of the homeless and the unemployed, during the early 1930s. But it was from 1935 to 1939, working mostly for the Farm Security Administration and partnering with Taylor and her paternalistic FSA boss, Roy Stryker, that she hit her photographic stride.

Gordon provides fascinating details of Lange’s working methods. With an assistant driving, Lange would look out the car window until she saw something interesting, and then order a stop. Outside the car, she would set up a tripod, often attracting children, who would, in turn, lead her to their parents.

From Taylor, she had learned an interview technique that avoided direct, and possibly threatening, questions about the farm workers’ employment and living conditions—which were, in fact, the FSA’s chief concern. “She would inquire instead about the routes they traveled, how their cars held up, children’s ages,” Gordon writes. “She might complain of the heat, ask for a drink of water, and then take a long time to drink it.” By the time she asked to take their pictures, explaining that they were meant to increase support for public aid and jobs, few subjects refused. The salaried Lange retained no copyright and never profited from these photographs—facts that helped allay later protests by Florence Thompson, the Native American subject of Migrant Mother.

The formal elegance of Lange’s pictures was no accident. She “turned toward the poor the same eye, the same flattering angles and easy-to-read composition she had previously directed to the rich,” Gordon writes. The documentary tradition, allied with social realism, offered another, perhaps surprising nudge toward idealism. “Like other 1930s realists,” we’re told, “Lange ennobled, monumentalized, even exalted working people.” The strong geometry and simplicity of her most famous compositions probably owed something to modernist influences as well.

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