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Dorothea Lange: Drawing Beauty Out Of Desolation

Many of us have an image of what the Great Depression looked like -- even if we weren't there. One reason is because of Dorothea Lange's photographs.

Linda Gordon, who wrote a book on the renowned photographer called Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, recalls one of Lange's favorite sayings: A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.

"She really understood that the ability to see does not come from your eye; it comes from your brain," Gordon tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

As a portrait photographer by trade, Lange knew pictures of individuals would have far more of an emotional impact than those showing eroded land or the dust storm, Gordon says.

An Image Of The Times

Lange's most famous photograph is referred to as "Migrant Mother" -- although that's not the title Lange gave it, Gordon says. It's the most enduring image many people have of the Depression, she says.

It shows Florence Thompson embracing her children as she looks off into the distance. While Thompson was only in her 30s when the picture was taken, she looks haggard.

"Within that anxiety that is written all over her face, you can also see that she's actually a very beautiful woman," Gordon says. "And that's really part of what Lange's genius was about: That she could make pictures of very poor people -- people very, very hard hit -- and still make them extremely attractive individuals."

Lange's Life

Lange led a difficult life. At age 7, she had polio, which left her with a withered lower right leg and a twisted, crabbed foot. Lange's disability meant that she could not put her heel down as she walked.

Even still, Lange was a strong woman, physically and emotionally. She was ambitious at a time when women weren't supposed to be, Gordon says.

But Lange's drive took a toll on her family. When she was on the road, her husband joined her whenever possible. Lange had to leave her children for long periods, placing them in what was essentially foster care while she was gone.

"The children, who I interviewed many decades later, they still feel resentment about this -- they were quite honest with me about it," Gordon says. "But it is entirely toward their mother. They don't blame their father at all."

Before she was offered a job with the Farm Security Administration, Lange was a city dweller who ran an upscale portrait studio in San Francisco. Nevertheless, she became an expert about her subjects.

"She was furious all of her life that her photographs were never published with the captions," Gordon says, "and so the photographs became anonymous."

Her photos were property of the federal government and were distributed free of charge.

There were great gains from having the pictures published without Lange's captions because they became so symbolic of a whole period of time, Gordon says.

But there was a downside. For example, Lange's "Migrant Mother" photo was used in several advertisements: Thompson's wrinkles were airbrushed out for perfume ads, and she was given an afro in an adaptation that appeared in a Black Panther pamphlet.

"That kind of thing infuriated Lange," Gordon says. "She actually hated the iconization of her photographs."

In Her Own Face

When Gordon looks at Lange's face and studies it the way Lange herself might have, Gordon says, she sees her charisma.

"One of the reasons that she was such a good portrait photographer is that she had an extraordinary power to connect with all sorts of people, to draw them out," Gordon says.

But Gordon says that Lange was also very contained; she kept her life very private.

In fact, only once did Lange make a self-portrait. When she was teaching photography in the 1950s, Lange liked to assign students to bring in photographs of where they lived, something profound about what their lives were really about.

One year, students challenged her to complete the assignment.

"What she brought was a photograph of her twisted foot," Gordon says.

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