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.

Gordon raises the issue of authenticity in documentary photography, a subject with considerable contemporary relevance. In fact, documentary fidelity, at least in the 1930s, did not preclude either staging photographs or retouching them. Lange did both in her creation of Migrant Mother. Gordon is comfortable with these practices, suggesting that some artifice is not incompatible with accuracy. “Lange managed photographic scenes so as to expose truths not readily accessible,” she writes. But it’s hard to discern what the limits of such manipulation should be for photography with journalistic pretensions. What if, for one poignant and celebrated image, Lange had posed Japanese American children with their hands over their hearts instead of actually capturing them during the Pledge of Allegiance? Wouldn’t that change how we felt about
the photo, and the photographer?

Lange’s final two decades were riddled with illness: ulcers, aftereffects of the polio she struggled with as a child, and, ultimately, esophageal cancer. Despite her ailments, she often accompanied Taylor abroad during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he worked as an agrarian reform consultant. During this period, Gordon finds her work “enriched
and diversified by new visual influences,” particularly from Asia, though not all critics agreed.

Lange lived long enough to help put together a 1966 solo retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but not to see it. One imagines that if she were alive today, she might haunt hospital emergency rooms and free clinics, searching for beauty and purpose at the cutting edge of America’s failed promises.

 

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