Dorothea Lange was 24 when she met Maynard Dixon and already on her way to becoming a successful commercial portrait photographer in San Francisco. Maynard Dixon was 45, an established artist, and a well-known figure in the San Francisco art scene. They were married for 15 years – a union of two exceptionally talented, fiercely independent individuals. Theirs was not an easy relationship. Yet, in terms of personal and artistic development, it was a crucial one.
Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutshorn, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Stricken by polio at age 7, which left her with a permanent limp, Lange led a solitary childhood. When she was 12, her father left her mother and vanished from their lives. The family moved in with her grandmother, who drank and was verbally abusive. In 1918, Dorothea left New Jersey for a trip around the world. She and a friend made it as far as San Francisco before a pickpocket stole their money, leaving them stranded. What started as a temporary stay to find jobs, earn money, and resume their travels became a permanent one.
Lange loved San Francisco. It was her chance to start a new life. She changed her name from Nutshorn to Lange, and found work at a dry goods and photo finishing store. Lange began making photographs of the people she was meeting. To gain access to darkroom facilities, she joined a camera club, and soon secured her own first studio. Her business was a success. Remarkably, without money, connections, formal education or even family support, Lange had made the transformation from rank amateur to successful portrait photographer, complete with her own studio, in less than five years.
When Lange met Dixon, she was firmly planted inside her studio, earning a fine living, and perfectly content to keep her camera right where she was. But after meeting Dixon, Lange was infatuated with the man and his talent. She reluctantly agreed to marry him, even though she was concerned about the 21-year difference in their ages. The marriage offered Lange the opportunity to experiment with her camera outdoors. It was on their summer trips through the Southwest that she started to photograph outside her studio. Up to this point, Lange had never created anything “for its own sake.” But she watched closely as her husband did. She observed the devices Dixon used to capture the great expanse of the western landscape: the line, the simple silhouette, the bold shapes, and always the vastness of the western sky. Being exposed to these aesthetics on the couple’s excursions into the great Southwest undoubtedly had a lasting impact on Lange.
One of these trips changed Lange’s career forever. During a 1931 trip to Taos, New Mexico, along with Dixon and their two sons, Daniel and John, Lange would observe photographer Paul Strand devoting his days to photography – the first time she had seen not a commercial photographer, but an artist with a camera taking himself seriously. Paul Strand’s daily presence embodied the seriousness with which this medium, her medium, could be pursued. Perhaps it was this realization that brought Lange a little closer to ending her apprenticeship with the painter Maynard Dixon, a little closer to ending their marriage.
Upon leaving their idyllic life in Taos, Dixon and Lange were confronted with the harsh reality of the Great Depression. They were forced to give up their home, board their children, and live in their separate studios. The situation also led Dorothea to explore the world of San Francisco outside her studio. She took it upon herself to document the tragedy around her. In 1933, Lange photographed White Angel Breadline, thus forever changing her path as a photographer.
Lange never stopped being a portrait photographer. Her portraits just became about more. In her studio her expertise was capturing something genuine about her sitter. Outside her studio, it was capturing a moment in history through a single portrait. No longer was photography her trade – it was her passion. And as it increased, the marriage declined. Dixon and Lange became increasingly aware that their marriage no longer worked for them. Their efforts to save it were ultimately futile, and they divorced.
Lange knew she still had a lot to learn about the new direction her photography was taking and soon found a man who could provide it. Paul Taylor was a professor of agricultural economics at UC Berkley when he met Lange, and the two connected immediately. Taylor hired Lange to work with him on a project for the State Emergency Relief Administration, documenting the plight of the migrant workers now streaming into California. Their philosophical connection soon became an emotional one, and they embarked on a personal and professional relationship that would last until Lange’s death.
Excerpt from, "Escape to Reality: The Western World of Maynard Dixon" by Linda Jones Gibbs, permission to use from Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
Maynard Dixon: To the Desert Again is a production of KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.