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NYU Historian Captures the Life of Dorothea Lange in New Biography of Depression-Era Photographer

October 9, 2009
N-76, 2009-10

October 29 marks the 80th anniversary of the stock-market crash that set off the Great Depression-a period captured through the lens of photographer Dorothea Lange. Lange’s photographs of the rural poor during the Depression-from the Migrant Mother holding her child to the gaunt men waiting in breadlines-are well-known. But what about the woman who brought us these iconic images of 1930s poverty?

In a new biography, New York University historian Linda Gordon charts Lange’s journey from polio-ridden child to wife and mother, to San Francisco portrait photographer, to chronicler of the Great Depression and World War II. Behind the lens, Gordon finds a complex individual-driven, but exquisitely sensitive, passionate and businesslike, who was demanding of herself and others, but a generous mentor and devoted friend.

“Lange was by no means the saintly, self-effacing personality that many had assumed, extrapolating from her photography,” Gordon says. “On the contrary: she was driven by ambition, sometimes irritable, often demanding-yet uncommonly sensitive and generous. In short, a personality of intensity and complexity and, therefore, a particularly fascinating subject.”

Gordon found also that Lange’s life intersected with so many major historical developments that the photographer’s biography became the story of America from the perspective of an artist.

“She plunged into history, so to speak, unlike many artists who try to withdraw from it to follow their own internal calling,” Gordon observes. “Dorothea Lange was a bohemian in the 1920s; an ardent New Dealer and supporter of FDR in the great depression of the 1930s; a defender of Japanese Americans during World War II. During the early 1950s she was frustrated by the pessimistic, conformist Cold War culture and tried, unsuccessfully, to counter it through her work for the great Family of Man photography exhibition and commissions from Life magazine. In the late 1950s and 1960s she traveled through the developing ‘Third World’ photographing in Asia and Latin America. And finally, shortly before she died in 1965, she became a mentor to photographers of the civil rights movement.”

The Lange biography is not the first time Gordon has written about the photographer. Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (Norton), co-edited by Gordon and Gary Okihiro of Columbia University, published for the first time Lange’s photographs of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Commissioned by the U.S. Army, the photographs were then impounded by the army because they were critical of the internment.

For review copies, contact Rebecca Carlisle at rcarlisle@wwnorton.com.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science

Type: Press Release

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