Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (DVD Review)10 Nov, 2014
Still photographers — the truly obsessed ones, that is — can be an unusual breed, which is something we saw earlier this documentary year with Finding Vivian Maier (which is worth seeking out from MPI Video). That portrait persuasively shows that Maier wasn’t merely eccentric but someone not strung together quite right — a contrast to the Dorothea Lange, who was merely unusual for her time and magnificent for all times (which takes nothing away from Maier, who had to suffer from being unknown when she lived).
If you don’t know Lange, you know her Migrant Mother photo, which is the single most famous shot to have come out of the Great Depression and one co-opted by everyone in countless contexts (without any remuneration going to the artist who created it, thank you). But even Lange conceded that this one achievement belonged to society as a whole — or, to put it in a Depression context, “the people.”
Lange’s granddaughter Dyanna Taylor is no slouch herself, having previously directed “American Masters” bios on Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; she also photographed the Oscar-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. In this “Masters” presentation, which avoids being episodic, Taylor is obviously working closer to home, though her narration stays out of the proceedings much of the time. This is possibly (or not) due to what appears to have been the uncomfortable subject of family dysfunction, one not ignored here though not dwelled upon. More on this in a minute.
Afflicted by polio in her youth, which might turn anyone inward, Lange migrated to San Francisco in her late teens and fell in easily and seemingly automatically with an artistic crowd while having the good fortune to land a job that gave her access to photographic tools. She married an older and talented painter of Western landscapes (Maynard Dixon) who eventually had a tough time making ends meet, but the key figure in her life turned out to be economist and pro-labor activist Paul Taylor, who was working on a government survey of the same Western living conditions in the 1930s (think: The Grapes of Wrath). Lange’s photographs were used to augment Taylor’s presentation and enabled him to make especially telling points via the captions that accompanied them. It was a new and fresh way to present what could have been clinical material and benefited from Lange’s own ability to extract good quotes from the downtrodden individuals she helped interview. There’s a great shot here (on one of the duo’s annual treks to the Depression Southeast) of a Central Casting boss man talking to Taylor (engaging him in conversation and keeping him occupied) while Lange visually captured the wary black sharecroppers at the boss’s back.
The close-knit experience between Taylor and Lange wrecked two marriages, forged a new one and then forced them to farm out various children to foster care at various intervals — an unusual thing for all but the abject poor to do by today’s standards, but what, exactly, was Lange supposed to do other than give up her career when she and Taylor were on the road all the time and sometimes living in tents? Through it all, Taylor sometimes had to palm off his collaborator as a secretary at a time when photography hadn’t the respect it has today — which is why (as a former government employee) she was hired to photograph the Japanese internment camps by functionaries who apparently had no idea of what her Depression photographs had dramatized. Lange’s work on this project sometimes clarified that the camps were glorified prisons, which for someone on the U.S. payroll, wasn’t a blueprint for job security.
Awestruck Taylor, who long outlived Lange, was firmly in the corner of one who made normal life concerns subservient to artist’s vision, but the kind of recognition his wife and partner deserved was late in coming until 1964 when the Museum of Modern Art decided to mount a major retrospective of Lange’s career achievements — one she didn’t live to see. Someone had the foresight to put the prep work meetings on film (and high-quality footage at that) — the kind of gift every documentarian would love to have because these scenes provide a built-in frame for the rest. In these sections, Lange gets to expound some on her methodology, though several experts do the same throughout the documentary. We see, for instance, from some of the photos themselves that she sometimes left what some might call un-germane “clutter” in the frame because they were germane to what she was trying to do.
One surprising footnote here is a bit about the woman who posed for Migrant Mother — shown many years later when she was older, apparently in better straits and pictured with her now grown children. As noted, she never got any official payment for the world-famous photo, but some who read about her history made some contributions out of sheer goodwill. This cemented a place in history that was eventually even reflected on her gravestone.