Milton Meltzer Robert David Turoff - Essay

Robert David Turoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is not clear why Milton Meltzer wrote [Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life]. She was a fine photographer, but that is not reason enough for a biography; she suffered misfortune—polio and a long and painful illness before death—but that, without illuminating insight into its meaning, is also not reason enough for a biography; and neither in a preface nor in the body of the text is sufficient reason for the work shown, either explicitly or implicitly.

This is a straight narrative that begins by detailing Lange's family background—nothing unusual there; her childhood—polio, the departure of her father—fully linked to her photographic work later on; and then a chronological narrative of her life—hardly gripping. Most biographies, in fact, are written as straight narratives, often successfully—a recent, superb example is Ronald Clark's biography of [Albert] Einstein. But Meltzer's work falls far short of this standard.

Meltzer accompanies his narrative with photographs. Most of them are by Lange; some, by others, are of her and her associates. Although enough of her photographs are included that one might regard them as an overview of her work, the collection has formidable omissions. As her health deteriorated, in the late fifties and early sixties, Lange traveled to Asia and the Middle East. Photographs made on these journeys appeared in the posthumous exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art and in the exhibition catalog. Not one of these, among her most notable achievements, appears in the biography. Indeed, Meltzer's treatment of these journeys is tedious. In narrating one event after the other, he appears interested only in putting down every fact on his index cards. The style is strongly reminiscent of Babar the Elephant.

Meltzer does illuminate some aspects of Lange's personality, most of them negative but treated sympathetically. One might not find this information in other sources; otherwise there is little of importance in the book not published elsewhere.

Robert David Turoff, in his review of "Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1979 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. 37, No. 1, Winter, 1979, p. 121.