The iconic work of photographer Dorothea Lange is thoughtfully considered in a new documentary.
Dorothea Lange – Grab a Hunk of Lightning was directed by Dyanna Taylor, granddaughter of Lange, which gives the film unique insight and access. Taylor traces back Lange’s beginnings as a young girl in New Jersey who was left with a limp after contracting polio. Despite the slight disability, Lange grew up to be an adventurous woman who landed in San Francisco where she opened a portrait studio and became part of the artistic community which included painter Maynard Dixon. They married and had two kids, and the film explores Lange’s deep battle in finding a balance between her work and her family.
The beginning of the Depression marked her foray into documentary photography. Being on the street gave Lange a different perspective than the portrait photography she was accustomed to, and she soon found herself in the middle of breadlines and protests. Labor economist Paul Taylor noticed her images at an exhibit and hired her to document the labor conditions in California (under the guise of a typist). Working together they produced a report on migrant labor—and fell in love. Lange divorced Dixon and married Taylor with whom she worked to document the Dust Bowl and western migration. The poverty they witnessed astounded Lange and along with her photos, she began taking down extensive captions and quotes from the people she captured. She and Taylor were awarded funding by the Farm Security Administration, which is how she came to take her best known photo, Migrant Mother. Of the image Lange comments, “I see it printed all over, prints I haven’t supplied, but it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to the world.”
She went on to document Japanese internment camps (a job the military hired her for and then fired her for after seeing the images she was making) and the construction of the Monticello dam in California, a project that illustrated the destructiveness of progress. Her journal entries expand on an intense desire to document despite many health problems as well as the personal struggles (and victories) she bore a as wife and a mother.
Throughout the film, as Lange’s black and white images flash across the sky, her process, style, and the meaning of the work take shape. She composed people within the frame, many of whom were living in desperate conditions, in a way that was simultaneously representative of an era and timeless. The photos also exhibit a sense of dignity towards her subjects and many contribute to her legacy as both an artist and activist. Reflecting on her work, Lange comments, “I believe I can see, that I can see straight and true and fast.”
The documentary is airing as part of the "American Masters" series on PBS and can be streamed here.
Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration