In "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits," biographer Linda Gordon documents the life of the iconic American photographer whose work during the Great Depression put a face to the privations of millions.

Share story

‘Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits’

by Linda Gordon

Norton, 624 pp., $35

Photographer Dorothea Lange’s dedication to a “visual life” began long before she owned a camera, which she insightfully called, “… a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”

As a young girl, she skipped school to walk Manhattan’s Lower East Side, transfixed by small snapshots of neighborhood life, beginning a visual education that would ultimately lead her to a photographic career documenting many of the most important social issues of twentieth-century America.

The power and iconic status of Lange’s work, specifically that produced during the Great Depression, including the iconic photograph “Migrant Mother,” has often overshadowed the photographer who created it. “Dorothea Lange; a Life Beyond Limits,” reveals an artist struggling with intense ambition and public responsibility on one hand and a conflicted personal life on the other.

Linda Gordon, the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University, contributes extensive details of the volatile social and political events of the era, giving the book significant historical heft as well. Much has been written about Lange’s work, but Gordon goes behind the camera with intimate details of Lange’s private life and also suggests her underlying recognition of the limits of her craft. While striving for truth in her photographs, Lange held no fantasy that she or the viewer could understand the ultimately unknowable inner lives of her subjects, believing instead that her best photographs should ask questions.

Afflicted with polio as a child, Lange was left with a permanent limp and a spirit determined to conquer it. Because of her physical restriction, her photographs would become ones of contemplation, not confrontation. “Her photographs … wept more than they raged,” writes Gordon.

Beginning her career as a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco in the early 1920s, Lange’s studio was a hub for the city’s bohemian artists, exposing her to progressive politics and ideas. The looming economic crisis and Lange’s growing social awareness redefined her photography as she took to the streets, realizing the democratic potential of her camera. Wearing her signature cocked beret and a Navajo silver bracelet, Lange became itinerant herself, occasionally leaving her two sons with foster families and traveling thousands of miles, producing visual narratives of troubled farm families fleeing the ravages of the Dust Bowl, the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942 and the impact of World War II on Americans.

With an unobtrusive documentary style marked by a gift for composition, gesture and natural light, Lange’s photographs elevated her subjects to a place of grace and dignity, despite their desperate conditions.

Discouraged by the backlash against progressive policies in the postwar years and increasingly weakened by ulcers and the stress of a fractured family life, Lange returned to her beloved Berkeley home to work, becoming the first woman awarded a Guggenheim grant. She was honored with a monumental show at The Museum of Modern Art, which opened just months after her death in October, 1965, from esophageal cancer.

Despite the legacy of her work, Lange refused definition as a reformer photographer. “Documentary photographers are not social workers,” she said in an interview. Her gift was an intuitive rapport with her subjects that deepened into an empathy and humanity matched by few, yet she held no pretense of omniscient understanding of their lives.

Gordon perceives this as perhaps Lange’s greatest strength. “That final impermeable layer of unknowability is the basis of mutual respect and, in turn, the basis of democracy,” she writes.