Nearly 60 years ago, a forced laborer in a Hungarian brick factory hatched a far-fetched plan to escape.
Dorothea Lange’s photos, in particular her 1936 photo “Migrant Mother,” brought attention to the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. But as a new coffee table book reminds us, her career covered so much more.
Dorothea Lange took photos of sharecroppers in the south and Japanese-Americans interned by the U.S. government during World War II. Later, she would take photos in Indonesia, Egypt and Nepal.
Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s goddaughter amassed the photos and wrote the text for “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.” Though Dorothea Lange died when Elizabeth Partridge was 14, she has vivid memories of her godmother.
“I was always a little afraid of her, because the closer you were to her, the more likely you were to come in for her trying to make you the best you could be,” she tells Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti.
She also recalls Lange’s way of seeing the world: “She did have a powerful gaze, actually. But it wasn’t that she was translating you into a photo, particularly. She took in the entire world with that gaze. I mean she was so visual, everything — clothes flapping on a line, somebody gardening, incredible issues of social justice that she saw — that all went in through her eyes to her heart.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
If there's any iconic image of the Great Depression, it's Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph "Migrant Mother." The picture of a weary California pea-picker, her head in her hands, gazing off into the distance. And I've always thought the most heartbreaking and brilliant part of the photograph: the mother's two children leaning against her shoulders, but we only see the backs of their heads.
Now, Lange shot hundreds of photographs for the Farm Security Administration. But as a new book reminds us, she documented so much more than the plight of migrant workers. As Elizabeth Partridge tells us, Lange always looked for what she called that saturation moment where both the suffering and dignity of the people she photographed materialized on film. And Partridge should know. She's Dorothea Lange's goddaughter and author of the new book "Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning." She joins us now from KQED in San Francisco. Elizabeth, welcome.
ELIZABETH PARTRIDGE: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if you could just describe to us what Dorothea Lange was like as a person.
PARTRIDGE: Dorothea was a very powerful person. She was extremely demanding. I was only 14 when she died, so I was just at that age where you're starting to put your head up and look at the adults around you. But I was a little afraid of her because the closer you were to her, the more likely you were to come in for her, trying to make you the best you could be.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. I always wonder for people who know and love powerful photographers very well. Did you feel like that you were constantly under her gaze, that she was seeing you in a way that other people may not have?
PARTRIDGE: That is such an interesting question. She did have a very powerful gaze, actually. But it wasn't that she was translating you into a photo particularly. She took in the entire world with that gaze. I mean she was so visual, everything - you know, clothes flapping on a line, somebody gardening, incredible issues of, you know, social justice that she saw - that all, you know, went in through her eyes to her heart.
CHAKRABARTI: The thing that, to my mind, really stands out about her is she was a seer of people. And in your introduction to the book, you tell us that her childhood was miserable for some very important reasons. And I'm wondering if you could share a little bit more about that.
PARTRIDGE: Yeah. In Dorothea's childhood, a couple of things really knocked her down. When she was seven, she contracted polio, and it left her with a limp. Her right leg didn't work as well as it should, so she kind of had to drag her right leg forward. You know, polio at that time was a huge shame. It was considered low class. So that was a big hit on her.
And then as a young teenager, her father abruptly left the family. Her mom had to get a job. Dorothea had to, like, go into Manhattan with her mother every day. And her mother would go to the library where she worked, and Dorothea would go on to her school, and then she'd have to walk back to the library at night. And in the winter, it was dark and she had to walk through the Bowery alone.
Both of these things ended up having a tremendous negative impact and positive impact. Because walking through the bowery, she learned what she later called her cloak of invisibility. She learned to make an expression of face that would make everyone's eyes go off her. And, of course, she used that as a photographer. And as far as her limp, when she would go out in the field and she would walk up to these people during the Great Depression, you know, they've been struck down by adversity. They watched her walking towards them with a camera, limping, they knew immediately that she understood adversity.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, she understood adversity in a very special way. I mean, as you're saying, physical pain, being ostracized, being dislocated from a sense of place.
PARTRIDGE: Exactly. Exactly.
CHAKRABARTI: All these things that are exactly what happened to, you know, the millions of people who suffered during the Depression. Did she ever talk to you, I mean, I know you were only 14 when she passed away, but did she ever talk to you about that ability to connect with people on such a fundamental level?
PARTRIDGE: She didn't actually talk to any of us about it because it was the water we swam in. As far as I was concerned, that's how all photographers operated. They never posed shots. They just kept an eye on the world. And when something interesting was happening, they photographed.
CHAKRABARTI: So we have to talk about "Migrant Mother," 1936 in San Luis Obispo County in California. Can you tell us the story about how this photograph came to being?
PARTRIDGE: Dorothea had been out on a long, long field trip. She'd been gone for about a month away from home, and she was very eager to get home. She had her camera bags packed, and she was heading up 101, driving. And she passed this little homemade sign that said pea-pickers camp. And she noticed it, but she was like, I'm not going to turn in. I'm done. But she started arguing with herself as she drove up the road, like, I think I should go back there. Without kind of consciously meaning to, she turned around and went back and pulled in. And the woman who became the "Migrant Mother" was in this little lean-to tent, right on the edge of a group of migrants.
There had been this very freezing cold rain, and the pea crop had gotten blight and nobody could do any picking. People were literally unable to eat. And she walked up to the "Migrant Mother" and spoke with her briefly and took five or six shots, and then packed up her camera bags and moved on. Got home that night, she was so bothered by what she had seen, this last bit of work she'd done. She developed that film and made a couple of prints and rushed them over to the SF News. And they were printed up the next day as the federal government was rushing food aid to that group of migrants.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm looking at this picture now, and every time I see it, it really takes my breath away. The picture really stopped being hers very quickly and became America's, because it's just so stunning and so many eyes looked at it and became part of the fabric of American history. Do you think that she was ultimately happy, though, that so many of her photographs were, you know, no longer hers because is that not the goal of a photographers who's, you know, has basically, in part, a social mission and is so socially aware?
PARTRIDGE: Oh, I think she found it very gratifying that her photographs could create social change because she photographed African-Americans through the South just gorgeously, beautiful, beautiful photographs. She was actually told by the head of the FSA to stop photographing so many African-Americans. He said we can't get public sympathy for their plight. But Dorothea was also extremely stubborn, and she did not pay attention to what he did. So he may have used more of her photographs of whites. But, like, when I went back through all her work, I was able to pull up a number of photographs that had never been seen of African-Americans throughout the South that are just beautiful.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Finally, I do wonder. It must have been such an experience going through Dorothea Lange's photographs and compiling them for this new book. As you did that, what impact do you think her career and her work has had on photography, especially as we look at it today?
PARTRIDGE: One of the hallmarks of Dorothea as a photographer is her incredible courage. If it's a quiet courage, she just kept putting herself out there and photographing. You know, it's almost undefinable. She had this amazing way of taking such brilliant photographs of people. Even to me today, it's an inspiration to look at this and say, how could I be as observant as Dorothea is? So whether you do that through a camera or just through your eyes, taking in the world, it's just a wonderful stretch to try to see the world as deeply as she did.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Elizabeth Partridge is Dorothea Lange's goddaughter. She's also author of the new book and collection of photographs entitled "Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning." Elizabeth, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so very much.
PARTRIDGE: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: And, Robin, we've got a lovely slideshow of Dorothea Lange's work, including a picture of her at work at hereandnow.org.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm looking at it.
CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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