Her celebrated photograph “Migrant Mother” is one of the most recognized and arresting images in the world, a haunting portrait that came to represent the suffering of America’s Great Depression. Yet, few know the story, struggles, and profound body of work of the woman who created the portrait: Dorothea Lange.
Directed and narrated by Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, herself an award-winning cinematographer and director of photography, a new American Masters film explores the life, passions, and uncompromising vision of the woman behind the camera, whose enduring images document six turbulent decades of American history. Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning airs on KUED Friday, August 29 at 8:00 p.m.
Taylor, who learned to see the visual world through her grandmother’s eyes, combines intimate family memories and journals with extensive scholarship and never-before-seen footage to bring Lange’s life and work, triumphs, and pain into sharp focus. The result is a revealing documentary of the artist whose empathy for people on the margins of society challenged America to know itself.
She was married to Western painter Maynard Dixon from 1920 to 1935. Her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, was a professor of economics at Berkeley who worked with her to document rural poverty. Taylor conducted interviews and Lange photographed the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers. The poverty-stricken mother of seven in “Migrant Mother” would come to represent the Great Depression. When the photograph was published in 1936 in a San Francisco newspaper, it triggered a national awareness of a public crisis.
“I challenged myself,” she later said. “I would go down there just to see if I could grab a hunk of lightning.”
As America matured into a world power, Lange continued to bear witness to mass migration, increasing urbanization, and the cost of war at home. Her photographs brought subjects alive, transmitting raw emotions and capturing the human condition. She once described photography as “a process of getting lost so that you live for maybe two, three hours as completely as possible a visual experience.”
In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, but she gave up the award in order to document the internment of Japanese Americans after the United States entered World War II. Her photos—taken on assignment by the War Relocation Authority, which was the agency leading the internment— were impounded by the U.S. Army. Her photographs of young Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the flag before they were sent to camps were particularly haunting.
Toward the end of her life, she became the first woman photographer asked to prepare a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.