When you think of photographer Dorothea Lange, you inevitably visualize “Migrant Mother,” the 1936 portrait of a woman and children that has come to represent the pitiless poverty of the Great Depression. In “Learning to See,” we encounter the photographer as a whole person — and notably a woman — who struggled with her own family traumas and heartbreaking decisions during her climb to the top. For photo buffs and others familiar with her vast body of work, reading the book will be like discovering the secret backstory of someone they thought they knew.
Elise Hooper is the biographer, seamlessly weaving together the time, places and people in Lange’s life. But make no mistake: This is a novel, its story told in the first person by Lange, who died of cancer in 1965. The technique works as a way of amplifying and romanticizing the story, but it presents a problem for the reader: What is fact, and what is fiction?
“Even a life as remarkable as Dorothea Lange’s needed some reworking to create a clear emotional journey,” the author writes in her afterword. “In the end, I stayed true to the basic contours of the historical record.” In other words, it’s like a movie “inspired by actual events,” which is not a bad thing when the character’s journey is so compelling.
Did her first husband really woo her by kissing her foot, a withered and twisted reminder of a childhood bout of polio? Does it matter?
But she did, in fact, contribute the photos for a series of articles by John Steinbeck, which matters because those stories about migrant workers eventually became his novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Those photos became the mirror of the Depression.
Also fascinating is how Lange was able to achieve mythic heights of success professionally while struggling with marriage and family. Labeled difficult in her time, Lange would almost certainly be a proud “nasty woman” if she were alive today.
The book follows the real-life trajectory of Lange from her first challenging days in San Francisco, where she starts out flat-broke after losing her money to a pickpocket. Before too long, she is running a photography studio. Her stock in trade is the high-society portrait, and she’s celebrated for it. Her client list is as dazzling as the posh space where she creates images of the perfect world populated by the fortunate.
In those early days, Lange is intent on growing her business, but she falls fast and hard for painter Maynard Dixon, whom she marries and with whom she has two sons. The creation of a family also leads Lange to work through the pain of her childhood. (Lange’s father left the family when she was 12.)
A wife, a mother, a professional artist and a social activist: This is the early 20th-century equivalent of “having it all.” But it is she who faces the daily drudgery of diapers and laundry and dinner, not her husband. A successful painter, he is free to pursue his art and romantic dalliances.
Lange’s career makes a sharp turn when historical events intervene. The market crashes in 1929. The river of money on which her studio floats dries up. Out of desperation, she puts her two sons in foster care, afraid that she cannot feed them — though some might say she chooses photography over motherhood. She and her husband separate.
Amid this tumult, an opportunity arises for her to explore photography as she never has before — and to stretch herself emotionally.
Lange takes the craft she has honed in her luxury studio to the streets and trains her lens on the impoverished people of San Francisco. Her break comes after a Berkeley economist, Paul Taylor, who has seen her street photography, recruits her to capture images of sawmill workers. Thus begins a career of bearing witness to the Dust Bowl migration of millions. (She later married Taylor.)
The federal government funds Lange’s work and distributes her photos free to newspapers. Perhaps that’s one reason “Migrant Mother” became iconic — millions saw it at their breakfast tables. But Hooper also takes note of restrictions the government put on Lange’s work — for example, by the War Relocation Authority, which sent her to photograph internment camps housing Japanese Americans during World War II.
“While you’re on this site, you’re under my jurisdiction,” a camp official tells Lange in the novel. “That means my rules. The rules are: no photos of guns, barbed wire, and fences.”
Hooper excels at humanizing giants. Her Dorothea Lange is at her most poignant in her interactions with her elder son, Daniel, a skittish, troubled boy, scarred by his abandonment.
He runs away and pawns his mother’s equipment. He steals his father’s paintings off the walls and, at one point, has a skirmish with his stepfather which ends with the boy sprawled at the bottom of a staircase, humiliated.
Near the end of the book, Lange collaborates with the Museum of Modern Art in New York on a major retrospective of her photographs. It is an enormous amount of work. She asks Daniel to help her. Over the years, she has feared that she would one day lose her boy for good. But she does not. The work that initially separates them is what ultimately brings them together.
Michele Langevine Leiby is a Washington-based freelance writer who has contributed to The Washington Post Style and Arts sections and the Sunday Magazine.
By Elise Hooper
William Morrow Paperbacks. 384 pp. $15.99.