Friday, October 23, 2009

Dorothea Lange

I meant to post this months ago in the wake of Daniel's passing. He helped me write this piece on his mother, but I never had the courage to show it to him. I wish I had. Another dear friend of mine helped me to write it and I just learned that his wife just passed on. When he broke the news to my mother he said, "She's moved on to join Daniel. What an awkward pair they make!" Well, I can't verify the exact words he said, but it was very close to that.

Here is the paper (forgive the formatting, this blogger editor isn't easy):

The Unknown Dorothea
She was born Dorothea Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 26th May, 1895. Her father was German and had abandoned the family when she was young. Her mother worked as a librarian while her grandmother worked as a seamstress. According to Rondal Partridge, Dorothea’s photography assistant, good friend and “adopted” son, “her grandmother was a vicious drunk.” With her mother busy working and her grandmother working and drinking, Dorothea raised her younger brother Martin. She contracted polio at the age of seven which left her foot shriveled up; she was left with a permanent limp as a result. She believed this crippling helped to make her who she was and put her more in touch with the world. It was her upbringing that taught Dorothea to hold her head high no matter what happened. She once said that she had discovered a way of becoming invisible. She would just hold her head high and nobody would notice her. She later assumed her mother’s maiden name, Lange.
Her family wanted her to become a teacher; she wanted to become a photographer. She didn’t own a camera, but this was what she wanted to do. Her career began in San Francisco in the 1920s. She belonged to the California Camera Club where a friend convinced her that she had something special with her work. She opened a studio and took portraits on commission. During this time she married artist Maynard Dixon and had two sons. She traveled the American Southwest with Dixon taking photographs while he painted. For a short time the family lived in Taos, New Mexico where Dixon produced many paintings depicting the Native Americans of the area.
In the 1930s she felt that her portrait work, while she thought it was good, wasn’t where she wanted to focus her attentions. She wanted to do more than photograph just the people that paid her. In the early 1930s she went to the streets in search of inspiration. She photographed what others wanted to avoid: breadlines, waterfront strikes and the people affected most by the Great Depression.
In 1935 she worked for the California and Federal Resettlement Administrations, which led to her working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) led by Roy Stryker. (Profotos) It was while she was doing this work that she fell in love with her second husband, Paul Taylor, Chairman of the Economics Department of the University of California. Paul was in charge of her team with the FSA. “Paul Taylor was an explorer, not of seas and continents, but of nearly unnoticed social events as they began to take form.” (Kerr, Dorothea Lange Fellowship)
Paul first came in contact with Dorothea's photographs in the summer of 1934, when he saw her picture of a strike orator in a local art gallery. (Dorothea Lange Fellowship) At this time she was still a studio photographer but had been following her instincts and exploring her real passion, documenting the events on the streets, photographing people in their true nature instead of in the sterile confines of a studio. Friends and family described their relationship as “a great love affair.” Paul and Dorothea were true soul-mates. Even the best soul-mates have differences, as did Dorothea and Paul. Paul was involved in politics, spoke seldom and softly and approached everything with careful thought and precision. Dorothea lived in the moment. She was gregarious, always moving and reacting quickly. She wasn’t interested in politics, she was interested in people. (Dorothea Lange Fellowship) She was also a perfectionist. “She kept the cleanest, best arranged house. There were never any ashes in her fireplace though she lit the fire often. You never saw how she did it.” (Partridge)
Her most famous photograph, “Migrant Mother” was taken while working for the FSA. Her photos, coupled with Taylor’s essays and captions, provided evidence of the urgent need of government assistance for displaced Americans. This photo has been reproduced in many forms, including a United States Postage Stamp.
Just as she held her head high, she kept her photographic standards high. Later in life, after she had achieved a name in photography, she charged $200 for a portrait. At the time Ansel Adams was charging $40 and Imogen Cunningham was charging $20. Dorothea got $200 per portrait because she priced her standards high. (Partridge) It was this pride that led her to get fired by Stryker. Stryker wanted her to submit her negatives to be developed by what Partridge called “darkroom junkies.” Dorothea wanted to do her own work, which resulted in her holding back some negatives; she wanted to keep her standards at the highest level. Though she had her disagreements with Stryker, she still spoke fondly of him, calling him a “genius.”
While World War II brought an end to her work with the FSA, it opened up new possibilities and sent her in new directions. Hired by the War Relocation Authority, Lange documented the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. In 1940 she was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, though illness prevented her from completing the grant to travel the country photographing the American people. (Dorothea Lange Fellowship)
By this time she was already sick with stomach problems combined with a chronic fatigue which resulted from her childhood bout with polio. Later, doctors discovered that she had cancer of the esophagus. Lange battled the cancer for ten years following the diagnosis. By 1954 she became so limited that she couldn’t go on magazine assignments that took her out into the field. She still always kept her camera around her neck but as she couldn’t go out, she began to photograph her family and her own domain. “She built up quite a body of work in that way,” said her son, Daniel Dixon. She was an extremely family-oriented person. She had high expectations of her children but when her grandchildren came along she spared them the pressure she often imposed on her sons.
“It’s important to understand why she got ill,” says Partridge. Dorothea took responsibility for the brother she raised. Affectionately referred to as her “monkey,” Martin was “a warm, friendly fuzzy dog.” (Partridge) At one point Martin was fixing up Dorothea’s house in San Francisco when a friend of his offered to pay him a substantial sum of money to fix up his house. Martin accepted the job knowing that the money he was being paid had been stolen by his friend. When the police asked Martin about the money, he confessed that he knew the money was stolen and for his part, he went to jail for a year. “This caused such an upset in Dorothea that her stomach acid flowed and eroded her throat, which led to the cancer,” says Partridge.
Regardless of her illness or in spite of it, in 1954 she went to Southeast Asia on a long-term trip that included the countries of Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines among others. Taylor was doing work with the governments of these countries. He was working for the Ford Foundation, hired to work on land reform. Taylor and Lange traveled on diplomatic passports. They enjoyed all the privileges of being an elite traveler. All necessities were provided by the Ford Foundation and the various governments of the countries they visited. Though ill she was as comfortable abroad as she would have been at home. “She went with no assignments, she went just on her own, not understanding the culture or language, just guided by her sense of vision, what she saw,” says Dixon, “The work she produced during this time was, in my opinion, the most evocative of her career.” She often asked herself, “what in the world am I doing here with a camera?” What she was doing was trying to find understanding through the camera. (Dixon)
Prior to taking the trip she consulted a doctor to see about traveling with her health condition. The doctor said, “What difference does it make whether you die here or there? Go!” (Dixon) During the next several years they traveled from Asia to the Middle East to Egypt, then from Egypt they went to India, Nepal and Pakistan. From there they went through Russia and Europe by way of Volkswagon before returning home to the United States. (Dixon) Dorothea spoke fondly of her years spent abroad. She said that living in Asia and the Middle East gave her a “third eye” in her head. She saw things in a different perspective. (Smithsonian Archives of American Art)
The trips to Asia, Middle East and Europe produced the last major body of work she completed. When she returned she continued to photograph her life at home around Berkeley. This work at home was a conclusion to the work she began prior to her travels just after falling ill.
In 1953 she was asked to put together a body of work for a major one-woman exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). It took her almost two years to look through all the work that she’d done and put it into some kind of order; to arrange it so that it showed some development of her as a photographer. (Dixon)
Dorothea died on October 11, 1965 just a few weeks prior to the opening of her exhibit at the MOMA. When the exhibit opened her family received a message from President Lyndon B. Johnson in recognition of her work. Her husband, Paul Taylor, donated the bulk of her collection to the Oakland Museum of California where it remains. The collection consists of over 25,000 negatives and more than 6,000 prints. (Profotos)
Lange’s compassion for people and dedication to her worked marked her as not just one of the “greats” of photography, but according to Partridge, she was the greatest photographer of the 20th century. “Other photographers used photography selfishly as a method of self-expression, their work was inward looking. Dorothea’s work was outward looking; it was about poverty and society. This is where she did something and made a difference.” (Partridge)
Recently, the photograph Dorothea considered her “most famed photograph” sold at auction for $882,000, breaking the record for this type of work. The photograph, “White Angel Breadline” and was taken on her first day out on the streets in San Francisco in the early 1930s. It was “instinct” that told her to take that photo. (Dixon; Smithsonian Archives of American Art)
According to those that knew her, she had the most insightful eyes one would ever know. She saw and heard everything. In her last days, Dorothea said what a pleasure it was to take a picture and to see that what you have done is "true." (Dorothea Lange Fellowship)

(All photos courtesy of Daniel and Dixie Dixon)


Judi said...

Thank you! for the informative piece. Recently NPR was interviewing the author (Linda Gordon) of her book "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits" Have you read that?

Lizzybo said...

Thanks for reading and posting. No, I haven't read that, but I intend to now that I know about it. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of this book.