David E. Scherman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

It is one of the glories of Milton Meltzer's superb life of Lange ["Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life"], perhaps an unintended one (but more about unconscious art in a minute), that his innate reporting skill and honesty forbade him to gloss over the complexities and conflicts despite which his subject managed to become a legendary figure in recent American social history and even, to many critics and somewhat fewer photographers, a great photographer. There are other fortuitous reasons why it is a good book. Mr. Meltzer is a historian himself, with a special expertise on the Depression ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime"), which produced a Dorothea Lange, and Government subsidy to the arts ("Violins and Shovels"), which enabled Lange to work effectively….

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Lange was a great unconscious artist…. She had a clear understanding, and Mr. Meltzer reminds us of this simple fact, that subject matter, not technique, not equipment, not even a sense of timing, is what distinguishes a professional from an amateur….

Lange's subject of consequence was to document the breakdown of the American ideal exemplified by the Homestead Act of 1862—that our land shall be farmed by working owners…. She made a memorable picture of a dislocated [Depression Era] American ("White Angel Bread Line"), the first of thousands she was to see, and discovered that she could no longer arrange her subjects—she had to learn how to select them, the crucial difference in the making of a photographer.

Both Lange and her biographer are quick to point out that she did not invent documentary photography—what she has come to epitomize and what this book is all about. Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, even Mathew Brady, to name a few, had preceded her….

The most touching passages describe how in her old age she marshaled about her the children and grandchildren whom she felt she had neglected in her single-minded urge to record the misconditions of history…. Her dramatic final race, with death, to put together a lifetime retrospective for the Museum of Modern Art, is a surprising cliffhanger. But that episode is really characteristic of any committed photographer.

Milton Meltzer's handsome book is worth reading not just because it meticulously chronicles the life of one rather mad genius, but because it gives insight into a whole mad profession.

David E. Scherman, "Pictures of Things As They Are," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 6, 1978, p. 9.

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