George P. Elliott

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

[Though] Dorothea Lange's genius for seeing with a camera is what makes her important in the world and also intensifies the reader's interest in her, it is not that genius in itself which makes her a good subject for a biography. For that purpose, it matters much more that she talks well about herself and her work. Unlike many artists, she does not cover her traces as a creator. Reading [Milton Meltzer's Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life], one does not just contemplate the end result of her striving to make images that, to her mind, are beautiful only if they are true; one can follow her as she strives, because in the book she talks intelligently about this process, in letters and notebooks, through the memories of friends and disciples, from tape in an extensive oral history interview made when she was sixty-five, five years before her death. (pp. 109-10)

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Meltzer has done his legwork, following leads no one else followed; he has not distorted story or character in any significant way that I am aware of; he has an overview which orders the facts coherently; nevertheless, the story he tells, while good, is not quite right. There are, I believe, two reasons for this: haste and psychologizing.

Haste is evident in many small errors which polishing and double-checking would have eliminated…. Many more ill-identified or even unidentified names of people appear than narrative clarity and ease of understanding permit. The prose sometimes descends from standard English to the irrelevantly colloquial, for instance in the frequent use of incomplete sentences. There are some needless repetitions. There are minor errors of fact…. [The] inaccuracy about how the family learned of Dorothea's original name does not matter very much, and one by one the other inaccuracies in the book matter even less. But, accumulated, these and the other evidences of haste do matter, enough to prevent the book, thorough and interesting though it is, from being as good as it could have been.

The other unfortunate element in the book is its chronic psychologizing. A typical example …: "It seems to have been a name she wanted desperately to forget." Such a sentence is not just superfluous, it interferes; in any kind of narrative, to spell out the obvious in motivation is to do some of the reader's imaginative activity for him, and so deprive him of just that much of his vital enjoyment. In occasional small doses, over-explanation does little harm; but as a steady thing it not only vitiates the experience of reading a story, it tells you what to think, limiting and stultifying that play of speculation which is one of the high goods of narrative…. Indeed, in those shaded, ambiguous areas of the self to which story is drawn by its very nature, especially when the protagonist is as subtle as Dorothea Lange, interpreting an anecdote limits its imaginative truth.

But, though psychologizing makes the book gummy, especially toward the end, it does not prevent the essential story. And happily, Meltzer, who clearly is not knowledgeable about photography, does not intrude in respect of her work but by and large lets her and her colleagues and students speak about it in nonpsychological language. The core of this crucial theme, her photography, is to be found in the opening paragraphs of chapter 18. For example, one student in the first seminar she taught recalls:

She paused often, aware of what a pause can mean. Every statement seemed a commitment. "The good photograph," she kept repeating, "is not the object. The consequences of that photograph are the object. And I'm not speaking of social consequences. I mean the kind of thing where people will not say to you, how did you do it, or where did you get this, but that such things could be!"

This is the sort of thing biography cannot have too much of.

Psychology is far better equipped, in theory, vocabulary, and popular acceptance, to talk about family relationships than about artistic creation. In this biography, Meltzer lets the materials for understanding the photographer as documenter and as artist speak for themselves, leaving the mystery intact; but, though the materials for presenting the wife and mother are also abundant and also capable of speaking for themselves, he psychologizes them, obfuscating their mystery. However, he does not overexplain or overmoralize the connection between the elements at war in her personality, so that the structure of the story emerges clearly—an imperfect and excessive narrative, yes, but also potent and coherent. Her flawed grandeur is not lost. (pp. 114-16)

George P. Elliott, "A Genius for Seeing" (copyright © 1978 by George P. Elliott; reprinted by permission of Mary J. Elliott), in The American Scholar, Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1978–79, pp. 109-10, 112, 115-16, 118.

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