Learning to See – A Novel of Dorothea Lange, the Woman Who Revealed the Real America by Elise Hooper is a new novel about a female photographer whose images are some of the most iconic of the American Great Depression.
I knew the photographs, especially the portrait now known as Migrant Mother, but I new nothing about the woman who took the photographs that portray the desperate lives of those living in the Dust Bowl. What most shocked Dorothea Lange was that these people were Americans – not refugees from some other less affluent or war torn country. These people were Americans, leaving the east on their way west hoping to find employment in California – and finding life just as hard there as the place they’d left behind.
Dorothea Lange trained as a photographer in New York City before heading west herself in 1918, to San Francisco, looking for adventure and a clean break from her life in the east – and from her troubled past. In San Francisco she found acceptance as one of a group of artists and photographers; and with fierce determination to support herself as a successful photographer she set up a portrait studio. She also found love, with Maynard Dixon, already an established painter. But marriage between artists is sometimes a challenge – and always there is the struggle of the art or the marriage taking precedence. Maynard Dixon was used to living on his own terms, thinking nothing of going off on painting trips, for weeks or months at a time. They sometimes travelled together, but often Dorothea stayed at home, with the children. And, of course, infidelity does not help sustain a marriage.
By the time of the Great Depression this marriage was in trouble. By now, a mature woman, it was time for Dorothea Lange to make some new choices. Though her business was successful, she had taken time away from the studio to raise her children and travel with her husband, and even her wealthy customers were tightening their belts.
The establishment of Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration – the FSA – gave Dorothea Lange the opportunity to do something meaningful and still be able to support her family. From 1935 to 1939 she travelled, taking photographs, and becoming more and more aware of the desperation of so many fellow Americans. She was also becoming more and more aware of politics and the plight of the American people.
Dorothea Lange’s next major body of work focused on the internment of Japanese Americans after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Most of the photographs she took in these years were impounded by the military – but now provide documentary evidence of this time and the people whose lives were so profoundly affected by their removal from their homes and imprisonment in isolated camps.
After the war Dorothea Lange continued to work, teaching and writing, and taking photographs. She remarried and raised her children and step-children. Recognized during her lifetime as an important photographer, Dorothea Lange’s work is still shown and admired today. And, thanks to Elise Hooper readers of historical fiction will learn more about this accomplished woman by reading Learning to See.