09.03.149:15 AM ET

When Lightning Strikes

Best known for her photograph “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange is the subject of the new documentary “Grab A Hunk of Lightning.”

It took no small amount of hubris to try to capture the life of legendary photographer Dorothea Lange on film. Her audience would not, I imagine, look kindly on any visual imperfection. Fortunately, this challenge was met by Dyanna Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter—an award-winning cinematographer in her own right—who brings her grandmother’s gift of seeing to "Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk of Lighting,” premiering at 9 p.m. tonight on PBS’s American Masters.

The film’s opening sequences—the camera lingering on the beach, sun glinting off rocks—are so compelling that I longed to possess the images as still photos. Even as I was marveling at that accomplishment, Taylor narrated a childhood experience of walking on the beach with her grandma. She had picked up a handful of shells and stones and asked Dorothea to look at them. Dorothea said, “’I see them, but do you see them? I said, ‘Yes, I see them.’ ‘But do you see them?’ And she snapped the photo. I looked back at my palm and from then on, apprehended the world differently.” 

Dyanna, Stones in on Out-Stretched Hand. ”Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, c. 1961 ()

Through this documentary, Dyanna shows us how Dorothea apprehended the world, differently.

Dorothea Lange, most known for her iconic Depression-era photo “Migrant Mother,” was born in 1895 in New Jersey. Her father abandoned her family when she was a child, and she grew up with her mother, younger brother and maternal grandmother. At age 7, she contracted polio, which left her with a damaged foot and a permanent limp. After studying photography at Columbia University, she moved to San Francisco, started her own portrait studio and became known for hosting evening salons. While there, she met the painter Maynard Dixon. They married and had two children.   

"Migrant Mother." Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, 1936 ()

Dorothea wanted to “live in a visual world, detach from all holds and live as completely as possible a visual experience.” Mothering did not come to her easily and nurturing did not seem to be in her nature, but she liked to watch Maynard with the children, taking loving photos of father and sons. (Equally free-spirited, he would leave for weeks and months to paint and at one point the two boarded their children out for at least nine months.) Her son recalls that for Mother’s Day he presented her with a bouquet of daisies. She didn’t accept the gift. Instead, she took a photograph.  

During the Great Depression, Dorothea turned her attention to photographing the hardships people were facing, particularly sharecroppers, farmers and migrant workers. Along the way, she crossed paths with Paul Taylor, an economics professor who was documenting for the government rural poverty and the painful, challenging experiences of sharecroppers and migrant workers. She was hired by the Resettlement Administration (a federal agency that was part of the New Deal), and to Taylor’s reports she added photos that spoke a thousand words. Working together, the two fell deeply in love. For each other, they left their respective spouses and families. When they married, they formed a union that would catalyze their work, and their lives, until the day Dorothea died.

Dorothea was powerfully documenting, and drawing attention to, hardship—people standing on soup lines; women’s legs clad in torn, oft-mended, silk stockings; men and women traveling for miles and miles without hope of finding home and work. Meanwhile, as the film briefly mentions, her own children (as well as Paul’s) were placed for a time in foster care. 

White Angel Breadline. Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, 1933. ()
“Enforcement of Executive Order 9066. Japanese Children Made to Wear Identification Tags.” Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, 1942. ()

While I was previously familiar with “Migrant Mother,” I was surprised to learn from the documentary how much this woman lived through and documented: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the internment of Japanese citizens during World Word II. 

To convey this personal and United States history lesson, Taylor pieces together family memories and journals with photos, film footage and interviews with family, friends and colleagues, in a seamless and logical way. It is a beautiful, interesting and edifying film about the photographer.  

But. I would like to have known more about the woman. Obviously a complicated, passionate and driven artist who dedicated herself to changing the world—this was also someone who, twice, made the decision with her spouse to leave her own children in the care of strangers. I wonder how unusual, or common (considering the Great Depression and financial realities) that was for families at the time. It seems to me that could have used a bit more exploration and context. How much was specific to this particular woman’s preferences and decisions?  

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe if asked, she would have pointed to “Migrant Mother” as her legacy. But for me some first-, or second-hand, illumination around her personal choices would have helped paint a fuller portrait.

As the movie opens, Dorothea is reviewing her life’s work in preparation for a 1966 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the first for a woman photographer. She died three months before it opened—to acclaim, the world now able to see what she saw.