“I could tell my commercial success put off some of the men who been working for a long time. They viewed me as a hack. After all, what did I know? I was just taking pictures of rich people. All of their talk about artistic philosophy and technique made me feel inferior and bored me to tears.”
When the Great Depression struck in 1929, an unlikely figure took up the calling of capturing for posterity the breadlines, shantytowns, and migrant farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange was a portrait photographer, sought after by the elite of San Francisco society. Though she was friends with members of the city’s prestigious f/64 photography club, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, she was not a participant, perhaps because her work was considered too commercial. But as her rich clientele dwindled, Lange took up her camera for a new purpose, capturing many of the most famous images of the Great Depression as we remember it today. In Learning to See, Elise Hooper fictionalizes Lange’s journey from New Jersey girl to San Francisco society photographer to one of America’s most famous photographers of the nation’s pivotal moments.
Hooper paints a portrait of Lange as a modern, independent businesswoman and artist, who evolves into something of an artist-activist. In the afterword, Hooper notes that many of Lange’s contemporaries described her as difficult and controlling, but the novel takes Dorothea’s first-person perspective, and tries to imagine her life as she saw it herself. She expected the same degree of control over her work that her male peers enjoyed, but because she often worked for the government in the latter half of her career, she often did not have full control over her projects. She would be told where to go, and what she could and could not photograph. Her images did not belong to her, but to the various government agencies by whom she was hired by to depict the Great Depression, and then the Japanese-American internment. The latter photos were considered so incendiary that her work was impounded. Ansel Adams took her place, capturing images that were more to the government’s liking. Likewise, Lange took many photos of African-American sharecroppers who were hard hit by the depression, but the government chose not to use them, declining to make the depression a “race issue.” You can see some of Lange’s images in the back of the book.
Hooper pays particular attention to Lange’s family dynamics, from her abandonment by her father as a child, to her first marriage to painter Maynard Dixon, their two sons, and their subsequent divorce. As work dried up during the difficult years of the Depression, Lange made the wrenching decision to foster out her children so that she could keep working for the government, which required her to travel. With her husband unable to sell any of his work, she was the sole provider, a fact which strained her marriage, and caused resentment in her children. Although she enjoyed a happier second marriage, she remained responsible for the children, while neither of her husbands were ever faulted for their own part. Hooper captures this tension, deftly demonstrating the constraints that limited a working woman artist at the time; without birth control or childcare, she was at the mercy of childrearing responsibilities, and judged harshly for any she dared to throw off.
In addition to Dorothea’s marriages, Hooper pays special attention to two of her friendships, first with Fronsie Ahlstrom, the girl with whom she traveled to San Francisco in the first place. Hooper acknowledges that Fronsie mostly disappears from Lange’s biographies after this period, and that her role in the novel is largely fictionalized. However, Dorothea’s relationship with fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham was better documented—in fact, Cunningham was the original subject of Hooper’s project before the research trail led her to Lange instead. These two friendships buttress the narrative, providing the support that the men so easily overlook.
Hooper spends the first part of the book fully setting the scene and chronicling Lange’s development. While this part of the story is slower, it gives weight to Lange’s evolution, and contextualizes her decisions. Learning to See begins at the end, when Dorothea receives an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of her work in 1964. We occasionally revisit this last year of her life throughout the book, illustrating the length and strength of her friendship with Imogen, her carefully repaired relationship with her older son, and the amount of time it took for the value of her work to gain to broader recognition. While the book rushes in portions, and drags in others, the overall portrait is nevertheless fascinating.
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