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.)

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.

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.

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