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'Migrant Mother' and Beyond: Dorothea Lange's lifetime in photography

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Photographer Dorothea Lange is best known for her intimate portraits of Depression-era migrant farmworkers, but a new book shows how her life's work spans decades and continents.

Photographer Dorothea Lange is best known for her intimate portraits of Depression-era migrant farmworkers.

Her most famous photo, "Migrant Mother", has become an icon of the Dust Bowl era, and of the plight of migratory farm workers in California in the 1930s. However, her life's work spans decades and continents.

Many believe her powerful images of suffering and despair were influenced by personal experience. Lange had childhood polio, and walked with a pronounced limp.

A new book called "Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk Of Lightning" takes a comprehensive look at her life in photographs. From her images of Japanese Internment during World War Two, to street scenes abroad in places like Korea, Nepal and Venezuela.


Author Elizabeth Partridge joins the show to talk about Lange's life and the legacy of her images.

Interview Highlights:

How did you get to be Lange's goddaughter?
"I was actually born into it. It was nothing volitional on my part. My dad decided at age 17 he wanted to be a photographer. His mother was a photographer, and she sent him out to work with a couple of what she called, her family friends. First, Ansel Adams and then Dorothea Lange. He really clicked with Dorothea, and although at first he was just an assistant for her, gradually he was kind of blended into the family and as all us children came along, we were called godchildren as a way of honoring this kind of extended loose family tie."

How did she get so close to her subjects?
"First of all, the Polio was huge because she walked with a very noticeable limp. So when she went into a migrant camp, these were people who have been busted by circumstance. Either the Dust Bowl, the weather had thrown them off the farm or financially they had run into trouble…They could take one look at her and realize she understood adversity in a very deep and personal way. She said it put her on a different level than if she had gone into a situation whole and secure. She just felt she could sort of blend into the background and she did."

Lange worked as a photographer for various government agencies. How much of what she did would you label propaganda?
"It was government propaganda what she did for the government, and she owned that. That was fine with her. In the '40s, when she photographed for the War Relocation Authority, she photographed the internment of the Japanese Americans. Now, probably what the government wanted was to show that we treated the Japanese Americans during this time with some care and respect, and that it wasn't a concentration camp like there was in Germany.

"She was forbidden to photograph the guard towers, the toilets, which were very open and public, and the barbed wire. She was not allowed to photograph any of that. So, she knew again she was being used for propaganda, but what she also tried to do was show the dignity of the people there and actually show how horrific the whole thing was because she was dead set against the interment. She thought it was absolutely an erosion of civil liberties that just was intolerable."

What's the story behind her most famous photograph, "Migrant Mother?:
"Dorothea had been working for about a month down in Los Angeles photographing. She was on her way home and she was immensely relieved that she was finished with her field work, she was heading home and she was exhausted. As she drove north through San Luis Obispo County in California, she passed a little handmade sign that said "pea picker's camp" and then unconsciously she just turned her car around and went back there and drove into the camp.

"She saw this woman with her children, just took her camera back out and took six or seven shots, asker her a few questions, you know, "What's going on here, why are you here? what's happening?" and found that that there had been a freeze the pea camps and the woman had nothing to eat and she had her children, and her husband had gone off to try to fix the car, so she got the story, she got back in her car, she got home, but she was dogged by the appalling conditions she had seen at that last pea picker camp.

"So she immediately developed that set of negatives and rushed some of them over to the San Francisco News and they were printed out the next day and the government got food supplies out to the pea pickers camp so people at least had something to eat."

Did she have a sense of where this photo would end up?
"No, she had absolutely no idea. In fact, what she said later in her life is, 'That photograph no longer belongs to me.' She just said it had taken on a life of its on, which she was willing for it to do. That was absolutely fine with."

How did international travel affect her work?
"She no longer had a frame of reference, she no longer had a job. She had nothing she had to propagandize for. She was just free to observe the world, and it was an amazing transformation for her because she couldn't  assign value to what she was doing, she could only photograph it…She photographed things she knew and loved, but there was a freedom to her work." 

What toll did photographing the pains of other take on her psyche?
"That's a very interesting question. I know in the long run, the effect it had on her was she had to try to distant herself to some degree...Dorothea would try to put away her feelings and thoughts about what she was photographing, but she had significant health problems that were in part generated by the stress of the work that she did. She had terrible ulcers that just got worse and worse and worse, and were significantly detrimental to her health. Partly, it was just how she reacted to what she was seeing."


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