Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Chronicle Books (here). Hardcover, 192 pages, with 100 black and white photographs. Includes captions/quotes by the artist and an essay by Elizabeth Partridge (the artist’s goddaughter). (Spread shots below.)

The book was published in conjunction with a two-hour documentary film (of the same name), aired recently on PBS in its American Masters series (here). The film was directed by Dyanna Taylor (the granddaughter of the artist and Paul Taylor).

Comments/Context: Sometimes a book review isn’t exactly a book review, but a stepping stone to someplace else. This is the case today with Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning – this retrospective monograph itself is a sideshow to the main attraction hiding offstage, a two-hour long documentary film that covers far more ground and does so with much more flair and insight than is found in these printed pages. So in an inversion of high school English class, before we talk about the book, let’s talk about the movie.

Most photography collectors and enthusiasts can easily place a thumbnail version of Dorothea Lange in the photographic pantheon, most likely as a famed FSA photographer and the maker of the iconic Migrant Mother image, a now ubiquitous picture which came to visually represent the distress of the Great Depression for many Americans. What this film aims to do is to broaden that portrait to include both a retrospective review of her many bodies of work and an in-depth (and roughly chronological) biographical history of her life, weaving together literally hundreds of her photographs with commentary by a selection of curators, historians, and family members. It’s an ambitious hybrid, that loosely wanders from personal to artistic and back again, showing us the finished photographic results and the action behind the curtain in the same forward flow.

While it might have been straightforward to focus in on Lange’s most recognizable work from the 1930s, covering Western laborers, migrants, and down on their luck Dust Bowl farmers in more detail (ultimately culminating in the masterful book An American Exodus in 1940), the film doesn’t center on this period with any particular specificity, instead methodically working through her life in discrete sections, each given generally equal weight and consideration, with pointed attention paid to the “how” and “why” of the transitions. In many ways, this approach brings forward quality work that has often languished in the long shadow of Lange’s best known Depression-era images, and provides a framework for interleaving her personal history into the parade of her art. Lesser known highlights/projects that come alive here are her early studio portraiture in San Francisco, her investigation of sharecropping and tenant farming in the South, her unflinching images of the World War II Japanese interment camps in southern California, and her collaboration with Pirkle Jones in documenting life in the Berryessa valley before it was flooded by a dam in the mid 1950s (the footage of the towering majestic oaks being cut down is nothing short of traumatizing).

This march through history is given some momentum and urgency by rare footage taken of Lange preparing for her then-upcoming (1966) retrospective at MoMA. It finds her meticulously combing through old boxes of negatives, tacking prints on a long wall to test different edits and combinations, retelling stories and digging up captions, and feistily debating with a young John Szarkowski about which images should go where. These clips alone are reason enough to see this film, as they open up a window into the subtle and deliberate process of crafting the outline of her career. Even at the end of her life when her health was failing, Lange had strong opinions about how images should fit together, how pairings resonated (or didn’t), and how thematic constructs could tie together work from different projects and parts of her life. The final install shots of the show at MoMA are really quite breathtaking (especially the rhythms of large and small prints, hung in uneven intervals); sadly, Lange died three months before the show opened, so she never saw it.

The other discovery to be found in this documentary is just how warmly charismatic Lange really was. When you line up her personal struggles (a childhood marred by polio that left her with a limp, an absent father, two marriages, a handful of young kids to raise (some not her own), debilitating ulcers, and in the end esophageal cancer), it’s a wonder that she accomplished as much as she did in her photographic life. Not only does her determination come through in this film, but so does her contagious joy and easy going grace, even in the face of hard life trade-offs and set backs. She worked diligently, perhaps relentlessly, throughout her career, and it’s hard not to root for her success as you watch her dive head first into extreme farm poverty, labor strikes, and armed camps, championing solid citizens of courage and dignity. She engages humanity with such genuine warmth and quiet committed resolve that her astonishing toughness, insatiable curiosity, and consistently perceptive eye get glossed over.

When we look at the monograph that accompanies the film, however, it’s hard to see how they are connected, except in the fact that they both endeavor to chronicle the breadth of Lange’s photographic career. While Partridge’s essay ably covers much of the same historical ground as the movie, the included plates are maddeningly incomplete. Dozens of classic (and pivotal) Lange images are missing, and many bodies of work are given short shrift with just a handful of dare I say mediocre examples (and there are basically no early studio portraits at all). All I can conclude is that there must have been some problems with securing reproduction rights, as there are just too many obvious holes in the artistic arc for this edit to have been the desired outcome. For those collectors already armed with a shelf full of Lange books, biographies, and monographs, this one adds very little to the accumulated knowledge, especially since it doesn’t capture the MoMA retrospective preparation process which forms a narrative foundation for the film.

But the failings of the monograph shouldn’t deter you from embracing the successes of the film. The documentary gave me a much rounder perception of Lange, seeing her less as an FSA stick figure and more as a complicated and enchanting photographic survivor, a woman who faced plenty of challenges and sacrifices and still found a way to change the world by the sheer force of her will. It’s an empathetic portrait, both of the artist and her wide ranging subjects. As a perceptive social observer, Lange pushed documentary photography beyond its traditional limits. She was able to make enduring photographs where specific context eventually falls away, leaving behind a more timeless and universal portrait of the human condition.

Collector’s POV: The market for Dorothea Lange’s photographs is both mature and robust, with plenty of material (both vintage and later) finding its way to auction every year. Prices range from a few thousand dollars (for lesser known images or later prints) to nearly $1M, with vintage icons like Migrant Mother and White Angel Bread Line routinely fetching six figures in public sales. Quality mid-range vintage material can generally be found in the five figure range.

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