Review: Dorothea Lange - A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon


Book Reviews


I have always been under the impression that America has not given its female photographers the credit they deserve(d), and that it is maybe a bit too generous with its male ones. For example, Ansel Adams might have been very important for those who just love to toil away in the darkroom, but his photography strikes me as tremendously overrated (even though it’s just perfect for calendars). I have never understood why there are so many books about Adams and so few about Dorothea Lange. I know people love the moonrise photo - I’ve seen an actual print, and it’s an OK photo - but compared with Lange’s Migrant Mother it’s like stale Seltzer compared with freshly sparkling champagne. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the champagne any time. Luckily, there now is Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, a new biography, written by Linda Gordon.

Linda Gordon is not a photographer, nor a curator. She is a historian. This means that she approached her subject in a different way than a photographer or curator would have done. Having read the result, this is most fortunate. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits is an engaging read that brings many aspects of an era back to life, which we are not familiar with any longer. That is, of course, what historians do. Furthermore, the book spares us those details of photographic technique that often make biographies of photographers so tedious to read. This means that the book will also appeal to people who are not necessarily interested in photography, but might want to know more about the Great Depression, for example.

Speaking of Great Depression, the release of the book comes at a curious time. If economists are to be believed, the Obama administration managed to steer the country away from what could have been a new Great Depression. But at the time of this writing, despite the signs of the economy getting back on its feet, unemployment is at around 10 percent (in reality, it is much higher, since those who gave up looking for work are not counted any longer), and the economic reality for many people is, well, not good. So even though these days we are not witnessing a new Great Depression, it is still instructive to compare Lange’s era with ours, to compare social activism back then and now, to compare what photographers did back then and now.

And, of course, we need to ask ourselves whether female artists now have reached equality with their male colleagues. If they have not why is that? What can we - and “we” here means men and women - do to achieve equality?

So Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits is an inspiring read, not just because it brings to life a photographer who deserves much more exposure and recognition than we have given her so far, but also because many of the topics in the book have their equivalents today - and for some of the problems we still have not found any solutions.

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon, incl. 128 photos, 560 pages, W.W. Norton & Co.