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Matinee: 'Dorothea Lange -- An American Odyssey' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

7 June 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the thirty-sixth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Dorothea Lange -- An American Odyssey.

This thirty-eight minute presentation, produced by Tom Anderson, quotes Lange generously and crisply reproduces many of the stills that made her famous, painting a vivid portrait of this pioneering photographer.

She married twice but Lange was not her married name. She assumed her mother's maiden name when her father abandoned the family. She was 12 at the time.

And that wasn't the worse thing that had happened to her. At seven she contracted polio, permanently weakening her right leg and leaving her with a lifelong limp. "It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," she said.

Born in Hoboken, N.J., she was fascinated by the teaming life of New York's Lower East Side. She studied basic photography with Clarence H. White at Columbia (although never did his assignments, which bored her) and apprenticed with Arnold Genthe before moving to San Francisco in 1918. She subsequently moved to Berkeley and remained there the rest of her life.

But first she established a profitable portrait studio on Sutter St. in San Francisco, taking photos of the city's elite, the patrons of the arts. And making friends with Ansel Adams and Imogene Cunningham.

Then the Depression hit and the business failed.

She returned to the streets, photographing the faces of the Depression, most famously the White Angel breadline image of a bearded man holding a tin cup in a crowd. She wondered if she could make a living documenting her times. As the video explains, her published work of a labor demonstration led to a job with the federal Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration.

Her first husband was the painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons. She divorced him in 1935, marrying Paul Schuster Taylor, a U.C. Berkeley economics professor, whom she had met documenting rural poverty and migrant labor. He suggested she caption all of her photos, which became a life-long habit and extended to written notes of her photo sessions, quoting her subjects.

The video describes the various types of people she photographed and how she captured them with dignity, shooting up at them, for example, rather than down at them.

Her 1936 image of Florence Owens Thompson with her children, titled Migrant Mother, is her signature image. And also controversial on several fronts.

Her work for the FSA was distributed at no charge to newspapers for publication. Migrant Mother led to an article in the San Francisco News, which bought two of her images. That prompted the government to relieve the starvation in the camps where Lange had found the desperate Thompson.

But the FSA did not want its photographers to identify their subjects. So Thompson herself received no compensation for the image. Which, it turned out, had been posed and slightly retouched.

During World War II, Lange photographed the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to relocation camps. She was ordered not to photograph things like the barbed wire of the camps, so she focused on the faces of the incarcerated, but the images were so critical of the internment that the Army suppressed them.

After the war, she joined the faculty of the California School of Fine Arts at the invitation of Adams. Cunningham and Minor White were also on the staff.

She co-founded Aperture in 1952, along with White, Adams, Barbara Morgan, Dody Weston Thompson, Nancy Newhall and Beaumont Newhall.

She also traveled quite a bit. In 1954, for example, Life magazine sent her to Ireland where she shot 2,400 images (now in the collection of the Oakland Museum, which includes her personal archive of 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes and personal memorabilia). Nearly 50 years after Lange, Dierdre Lynch, a Bay area news cameraperson, returned to County Clare to visit the subjects of the stills she had studied at the Oakland Museum and produced the moving documentary Photos to Send.

In 1965, shortly before the Museum of Modern Art exhibited a retrospective of her work, only the fifth photographer and first woman to be so honored, Lange died of esophageal cancer.

But, as you'll see in the video, the faces of the people she captured long ago still seem to be among the living, looking at us for answers.

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