Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

Historian Linda Gordon’s new Dorothea Lange bio

I attended a fascinating discussion recently at the New York Public Library, featuring NYU history professor Linda Gordon in conversation with New Yorker writer Ian Frazier. The topic of discussion was Gordon’s extensively researched and beautifully written new biography, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (W.W. Norton & Co.).

Lange was a force of nature, a fiercely determined and ambitious woman who overcame a physical disability—a lame leg—to become a titan of documentary photography and a lifelong advocate for the dishonored and the neglected. Most famously, she chronicled the plight of migrant farm workers, southern sharecroppers and other victims of the Great Depression.

The portion of Lange’s work that initially interested me most, however, was the 800 or so photographs she took of the evacuation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Included are pictures of the California camp Manzanar, where my father spent part of his boyhood. The photographic documentation of Manzanar by Lange, Ansel Adams and a Japanese prisoner and photographer Toyo Miyatake, is a topic I have been writing about; I hoped to learn more from Gordon about the nature of the professional and personal relationship between Lange and Adams.

Lange made a name for herself with her work in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and believed wholeheartedly in the FSA’s goal of creating a democratic agricultural policy. Yet when another government agency, the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, hired her to document the uprooting and incarceration of the Japanese Americans, she could not support the government’s actions. She was highly critical of what she saw, and her photographs reflected those views. Instead of circulating Lange’s photographs, the government impounded them during the war, later slipping them without fanfare into the National Archives. Gordon and co-author Gary Y. Okihiro wrote about these photographs in their 2006 book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.

In a slide show presentation before the Q&A, Gordon described how, despite her “enormous love and admiration for [President] Franklin D. Roosevelt” (with whom she shared the physical ravages of polio), Lange became convinced that the President’s treatment of Japanese Americans was “an atrocity.” The photographer and her husband, UC Berkeley economist Paul Taylor, were vocal critics of the Japanese imprisonment at a time when few whites spoke publicly against F.D.R.’s decision.

Gordon showed some of Lange’s photographs of the concentration camps, including a grizzled-looking Manzanar prisoner with his young grandson [Lange had a talent for showing the bonds between fathers and children], and others that captured the harsh conditions, sadness and despair of prison life. She compared Lange’s portraits to those of Ansel Adams, whom she described as “not an opponent of internment.” Adams wanted to portray the Japanese as “unthreatening” and “to prettify, to disguise the real meaning of the internment,” Gordon explained.

The relationship between Lange and Adams was not always a smooth one. “They fought a lot,” said Gordon, who shared examples of the type of lively insults the two friends and rivals often traded. Lange once commented that Adams, most famous for his heroic landscapes of the Sierra Nevada and the West, “made rocks look like people.” Adams, in turn, sniped that documentary photographers “were social scientists with cameras.” Yet despite their open arguments, the two shared a deep and lasting friendship, Gordon said. Adams visited Lange when she was sick, wrote admiring and complimentary letters to her, and even did darkroom work for her occasionally. In its volatile ups and downs, explained Gordon, their relationship was “almost familial.”

In Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Gordon writes that “Adams and Lange quarreled all their lives,” as one observer noted, like feuding standup comics or the bickering partners on cop shows. Their political disagreements were “fundamental,” too. Lange was a natural champion of the oppressed. One-third of her photos, said Gordon, were of people of color, although government censorship hid this fact for years. Adams had a knack for befriending the rich and the powerful, and lived a life of what Lange considered unseemly luxury. His Manzanar photographs were his only professional foray into charged political or racial territory. Yet at the same time, Gordon writes, “Adams deeply respected, championed and promoted her photography.”In 1954, when Lange was asked by U.S. Camera to name the 25 greatest photographs of all time, she included an Adams’ photograph of an Alaskan mountain scene.

For me, knowing how differently their photographs of the World War II imprisonment have been accepted and interpreted over the years, Adams’ with intermittent hostility, and Lange’s with increasing admiration, the idea that these two photographers were lifelong friends is somehow touching, attesting to an artistic and professional bond that was deeper than the choices they made in the political and material worlds.

Although Gordon and Frazier covered many other facets of Lange’s life and work during the Q&A, I will briefly mention only one here: Lange’s most famous image, “Migrant Mother,” and the issue of Lange’s own role as a mother. Although this portrait of a migrant farm worker, Florence Thomas, and her three children has come to symbolize the hardship of the Dust Bowl “Okies,” Thomas was actually a Cherokee Indian. Lange “felt her anxiety,” said Gordon, “because it was hers as well.” The tale of Lange’s own “fraught motherhood” to two sons and a step-daughter, Gordon admitted, was one of the hardest parts of her life to write about. The photographer’s ambition and drive led her to put her two sons, Dan, 7, and John, 4, into the equivalent of foster homes while she traveled the West on photo assignments. Both sons, said Gordon, had “a store of bitter memories” of their childhood, “but also tremendous admiration and pride” for what their mother had accomplished.

It was only after Lange left her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon (Gordon describes him as “the husband from hell” who took little interest in his children and turned them over to Lange for tending) and married Tayolor that she was able to cease being the bread winner for the family and achieve greatness as a photographer, Gordon noted.

My initial interest in Lange was for her documentation of the Japanese evacuation and imprisonment. I now see her as a role model for any woman wrestling with the traditional roles of wife and mother and at the same time trying to make a difference, to leave a mark.

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