Dorothea Lange: a Life Beyond Limits

May 1, 2013

Those who are familiar with photography have no doubt heard the name Dorothea Lange. And if you’ve ever taken a women’s history class you may have an inkling of recognition. What the general populace is probably far more familiar with, however, is an iconic black-and-white image from the Great Depression of a migrant worker holding her children. Her face is gaunt from hunger, weathered from hours in the sun, and lined with worries, probably about how she will feed her children and where they will live from one day to the next. This photograph, taken by Lange, has become so associated with the Depression era and the rampant suffering people faced, that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hadn’t seen it before, even if they never heard the name Dorothea Lange. In fact, it is one of the most recognized photographic images in the world.

But there was a lot more to this woman behind the camera than a single, compelling photograph. She was hailed as one of the best photographers of the 20th century for her contributions, including not only coverage of Dust Bowl America in the 1930s, but also Japanese internment camps during WWII, photos that made her a documentarian rather than merely a photographer. In ‘Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits’, author Linda Gordon and honey-voiced narrator Kathleen Gati bring this incredible photographer out from behind the camera, examining not only her famous images, many of which were published anonymously and only later attributed to her, but also the woman herself.

The real beauty of this audio book lies in the skillful navigation by the author. Gordon deftly maneuvers between the broad canvas of the historical events that Lange found herself at the center of and the much narrower focus of the downtrodden individuals she captured in her photographs, not to mention the trials she had to face in her own life, including fighting censors (often the government agency contracting with her for projects) and getting her work published and seen by the public. For example, she was originally hired in the 1930s by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to photograph the positive effects of the New Deal’s public works. Instead, she took it upon herself to create the images of poverty and uncertainty that would make her famous. In truth, her photos so moved FSA leaders that they were prompted to call for reform, although they were largely ignored by other government agencies.

Born to affluence, nobody expected Lange to follow through with her desire to become a working photographer, a career that was considered somewhat bohemian at the time. But she not only developed photographs, she also developed a frank, forthright, and moving style, as well as a sense of social responsibility that led her to chronicle some of the darkest historical periods of the 20th century, despite suffering from a variety of ailments including polio, malaria, cancer, and ulcers. Unfortunately, the audio version of this biography does not include photographs. But with the inclusion of background on some of Lange’s most famous images, as well as many of her lesser known works, listeners may be prompted to pick up the best photo book of her collected works to follow along with as they hear the history of this amazing woman’s life.

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