During a trip to the library with my children, I perused the aisles of picture books nestled tightly between chipped wooden shelves. I was drawn to a table with select titles and was immediately drawn to the figure on the cover of a woman looking through the accordion of a camera. Not knowing exactly who Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 -October 11, 1965) was, I proceeded to the check-out desk. Later as I prepared my toddler for an afternoon nap, I started reading the pages of this book to her and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Lange’s photographs were recognizable to me. I knew of her work, but I was about to learn who exactly she was.
In Dorothea’s Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth (library) writer Barb Rosenstock and artist Gérard DuBois reveal Lange’s beautiful interpretation of love and truth captured in her photographs. Her lens took a remarkable shot at the lives that otherwise were ignored: the poor, the destitute, the miserable.
The book follows Lange from her childhood enclosed in the environment of her New Jersey home where she observes the faces of her family to the scary diagnosis of her polio at age seven. Chief to her predicament is the invisibility she feels as kids taunt her with names and her inability to walk as she did before fuels her visual sense, to see even though she ironically is unseen.
Dorothea’s parents fight over money and at the age of twelve, her father abandons the family. To make up for the loss, her mother begins work at a library where the hours are long. So Dorothea begins to blend into her new school comprised mainly by poor immigrants.
As she waits for her mother at the library, Dorothea is drawn by her curiosity of people in their crowded tenements. She sees fathers and mothers and babies going about their business at the close of the day, maintaining a safe distance between herself and them, but bringing herself close enough with her eyes.
Marking the narrative of a life seemingly lived in the shadows of society is Lange’s decisive moment—her declaration to pursue photography, which her family perceived to be unladylike. To placate her family’s disapproval, she attends teacher training school, but continues pursuing photography at Columbia University and works in portrait studios.
Dorothea’s love for faces is what she wants to show the world. She learns all she can in the studios and becomes knowledgeable about camera mechanics: shutter, lens, aperture. She helps in the dark room that she built from a chicken coop with another photographer and is able to see faces reveal themselves on the wet printed paper, diminished from invisibility, coming into full view.
But Lange’s eyes wanted to behold new places and faces. At twenty-three, she set out to tour the world, but was derailed when her money was stolen in San Francisco. She planted herself there and bloomed in her own portrait studio.
Although art is heavily influenced by the environment, sensibility and pathology of who creates it, Lange’s work was fueled by a particular era in American history:
The stock market crash in 1929, which ushered in the Great Depression, was the economic downturn that hurt the lives of many families. And Dorothea’s eyes couldn’t look away: they saw the sad, the lost, and the crowds of men with cups in their hands, waiting for a piece of bread. She captures one man’s face in a sea of others that are not visible in her photograph, “White Angel Bread Line” (San Francisco, 1933).
Dorothea’s friends don’t see the value in her taking photos of the poor, but her heart is what keeps her pointing and shooting their most honest circumstances.
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Despite Dorothea’s comfortable life as a photographer in San Francisco, where she made portraits of the most affluent families in California, securing herself financially and starting a family, there was something that continued to unsettle her about those she saw on the street and their condition.
She takes her camera to fields where workers earn only pennies for their labor. She witnesses mothers and children who are sick and thirsty, who live in jalopies. She recognizes the ignored of the land, those that live in the shadows, and extends her heart to them. She reaches out to them, asking them about themselves, asking to photograph them, as she sees the goodness in their face, despite what the world may perceive.
She travels the country for the U.S. Farm Security Administration and photographs many of the destitute—the homeless, the hungry, the jobless—despite the pain she carries, not only in her heart for them, but the hurt she has in her leg as well.
Dorothea’s photographs brought national attention to the condition of the poor and jobless and thus, the government is moved to provide parents with their most significant needs: work, food, and shelter.
“The truth, seen with love, becomes Dorothea’s art.”
On October 11, 1965, Dorothea died from cancer of the esophagus. She was seventy years old.
Today, Dorothea’s photographs are a flagship to American history, documenting our country’s most vulnerable season in the 20th century. The depth that a face can evoke has more significance to the condition of a country than meets the eye. Lange’s work is collected all over the country in museums such as the Oakland Museum of California, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cleveland Museum, and countless others. Dorothea’s Eyes teaches us to see with our hearts before anything else. Barb Rosenstock and artist Gérard DuBois deserve special admiration for their warm expression of Lange’s coming of age story, depicting how she contended with her physical condition, which contributed to her keen sensibility for the conditions of others. To emphasize the depth of Lange’s complexity, the bolder, or gray and red text noted throughout affirms that urgency she saw with her own eyes, her vision of what is left unseen to any other observer.
Pair Dorothea’s Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth with another delightfully illustrated biography celebrating another icon in history, Thomas Jefferson.
Illustrations © Gérard DuBois courtesy of Calkins Creek.