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Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

4.02  ·  Rating Details ·  324 Ratings  ·  64 Reviews
We all know Dorothea Lange’s iconic photos—the “Migrant Mother” holding her child, the gaunt men forlornly waiting in breadlines—but few know the arc of her extraordinary life. In this sweeping account, renowned historian Linda Gordon charts Lange’s journey from polio-ridden child to wife and mother, to San Francisco portrait photographer, to chronicler of the Great Depres ...more
Hardcover, 560 pages
Published October 19th 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Dec 01, 2012 Louise rated it really liked it
If the subject weren't so compelling, I would not have stayed with it. The childhood parts are heavy on speculation as to how a child of this era with polio or separated parents would have felt. Speculation on why Lange accepted the traditional women's domestic roles is similarly overdone. Staying with this book was worth it. Linda Gordon shines in her presentation of Lange's work and its place in its era and ours.

Gordon describes not just how these iconic photos were made, but the life of Lange
Feb 02, 2013 Maria rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: no one
I was very disappointed in this, chiefly because I was so interested in the subject. I have a couple books by Dorothea Lange, and I wanted to learn more about her.

The author referenced that Dorothea was not a feminist in 1920, even though her mom was basically the bread winner, and even though Dorothea was the bread winner, and it was the year that suffrage was passed. As a historian the author completely read that scene wrong. The word feminist may not be the appropriate word, but to think she
Mar 08, 2016 Kristin rated it really liked it
This biography was published eight years ago, so it is not new or even necessarily noteworthy now; actually, I picked it up from a Women's History Month display because I, of course, recognize and feel oddly drawn to Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother photograph that is now part of our national identity. But as I began exploring this well-written and comprehensive account of Lange's life, I found her story increasingly compelling. Perhaps the theme I appreciated most, was the honesty of her work. S ...more
Jul 29, 2015 Christine rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those with serious interest in the history of photography
This is the authoritative Dorothea Lange biography. It is exhaustively researched; Lange's own journals and papers were not preserved, so a staggering amount of work was clearly necessary to build up a thoroughly detailed (and responsibly sourced) account of the photographer's life and from beginning to end. As a result, while the style of the narration is approachable, this isn't exactly a beach read. The very depth of the study makes it primarily of interest to those who already have some fami ...more
Apr 23, 2010 Patrice rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2010
It took me months to read this book. It was thick with information, facts, and adventures from the life of Dorothea Lange. It was such a rich and interesting biography. I wonder if I didn't just keep putting it down because I wanted it to last. When I did read it I'd read long after bed time.

This book made it clear how difficult it was to make a living as a photographer. Dorothea Lange apprenticed early on with portrait photographers in New York City, later moving to San Francisco where she ope
Elizabeth Schlatter
Aug 18, 2012 Elizabeth Schlatter rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art
A fantastic biography--one of the best I've ever read. Gordon conveys an amazingly complex portrait of Lange that is aided by the author's deep knowledge of American history. She is also frank throughout the book about the inherent challenges of writing a biography when relying on recollections that are relayed decades after the fact and from highly personal perspectives. But most importantly, Lange's story itself is engrossing, admirable, and challenging. I'm so glad I read the book as it's pro ...more
Catherine Woodman
I thought this was much more interesting than I would have predicted--she was not someone that you would have wanted to be your mother, which is maybe a telling point about people who are driven in the way that she was--she had passionate relationships with the men in her life, but she was kind of irritable with children. She did assist them in the way you would have expected a father of the time to do--she helped them find their bliss, what career they were suited to. But she was not impressed ...more
Jun 08, 2012 Shiloh rated it it was amazing
This not only brings to light a fascinating artist, but meticulously recreates the history, the social awareness, and the contradictions in her life as they shaped and informed her work. At the same time the passion and skill Lange brought to photography are always the first priority for the narrative. One of my new favorite biographies.
Jan 06, 2016 Lisa-Michele rated it really liked it
This is an in-depth biography of a woman I am fascinated with, because she was a social activist, documentary photographer, mother, feminist and a lover of the America West. Lange is famous for her photographs of the Depression, especially migrant workers, but there is so much more to her than that. I found her because she photographed my hometown of St. George in 1953 for Life magazine, and I love those particular photos. Reading this book, I learned that she was married to the artist, Maynard ...more
Mar 25, 2011 Lauren marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
My favorite reads are always my impulse purchases. I am very excited to read this. :)
Jun 29, 2012 Rick rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Gordon has written a solid biography of the great documentary photographer whose iconic images of Dust Bowl victims were only a part of her outstanding career. Lange began things on the east coast, growing up in New Jersey and attending New York City public schools before going west with a friend as part of what was supposed to be an around the world adventure. They made it as far as San Francisco. Lange made a name for herself there as a portrait photographer but found her true calling as a doc ...more
Sep 27, 2014 Marleen rated it really liked it
Dorothea Lange was one of the trailblazers in documentary photography. She had a wonderful eye and was always on the lookout for the unique shot that would not only capture the individual but also the enviormnent. Her most iconic image is of the migrant woman who was found in a pea pickers camp. Since Dorothea worked for a government agency many of her best work is available for free from the National Archives.
Jul 05, 2010 Linda rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in both history and photography
Recommended to Linda by: NY Times review
An excellent biography of the great photographer. Linda Gordon provided a substantial amount if well-documented research related to the life of Dorothea Lange and the struggles she had as a photographer dealing with a "white male" world. In addition, Lange' lifelong battle with polio, which she contracted as a child, are discussed. Lange's two marriages, her children and step-children, are also well-researched and add to an understanding of both her character and challenges. The book also covers ...more
Jun 23, 2014 D rated it it was ok
Dorothea Lange was a photographer best known for her Depression-era photographs, including the iconic “Migrant Mother”. Unfortunately, Lange destroyed her journals and letters. So, like a photographer “chasing the light”, the author can only provide a lot of information about the times in which Lange lived, but little about Lange herself.
Audra Sinclair
Jul 15, 2013 Audra Sinclair rated it it was amazing
Great book. Dense, took me a while to get through but in the end I am so glad I did. Almost my entire view of Dorothea Lange was her work at the FSA and Migrant Mother. This book confirms that her most fruitful work was during those ten years with the FSA but to learn how she got there, what drove her passion, what she did after the FSA and how love and family played a part gave me a much larger picture of her. Not only do I know more about her but reading about her approach to photography infor ...more
Rae Meadows
Feb 19, 2016 Rae Meadows rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The definitive biography of Lange. Gordon had access and cooperation from Lange's family and friends, and her book is straightforward and insightful, with an academic's eye. Having read much on Lange, including other biographies, this is the best one. She gives the reader a full sense of Lange in all her complicated glory.
Nov 18, 2014 Maura rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art-inspiration
I listened to the audiobook--a bit strange when the book features a visual artist. But it was a perfect way to learn about Lange while working away in my studio. Part history lesson, part chronicle of one remarkable woman's life as a photographer, mother, wife and more. I loved everything about it.
Lisa Mcbroom
Apr 05, 2016 Lisa Mcbroom rated it it was ok
Well researched but slighty dull bio of the famed photographer Dorothea Lange. I had put this aside but after viewing an Ansel Adams exhibit I picked it back up. It gets two stars>
Mar 01, 2014 Marcia rated it liked it
I learned a tremendous amount about Dorothea Lange, but felt the author was often too wordy and interjected her own opinions about things way too much.
Jul 29, 2016 Allyson rated it liked it
What an interesting woman with such a unique career path for her time, and the book has well-written historical anecdotes about the Great Depression
Jaclyn Scala
Dec 11, 2015 Jaclyn Scala rated it it was amazing
I loved this book! This brought out my love of history, the Great Depression and women who paved the road for feminism! Great read!
Jan 01, 2016 Sarah rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I really had no idea who Dorothea Lange was, other than her "Migrant Mother" picture, before reading this book. Though I read this for a college women's history class, this biography painted a portrait of Lange that I did not know. From her father's "desertion" to her case of polio to a failed trip around the world, Gordon shares many important moments in Lange's life. What I found most interesting was how Gordon showed the criticism in Lange's photographs. Beforehand, I could tell you a photo l ...more
May 28, 2012 Gwen rated it really liked it
Linda Gordon manages to balance a scholarly appraisal of Lange's career with stories from her private life. This is done without seeming too academic or sensational. Gordon dubs Lange the "Photographer of Democracy" for her commitment to using documentary photography to communicate and promote American ideals through images of ordinary people. While exploring this the theme, Gordon paints a picture of a complex and sometimes contradictory woman who overcame disability in pursuit of her life's wo ...more
Jul 24, 2010 Abby rated it it was amazing
Gordon does an excellent job of finding and synthesizing primary source material about Dorothea Lange into this revealing biography. She appropriately situates Lange in the bohemian context of the 1920s and 1930s and then details her seminal work with the WPA during the Depression and the military during WWII.

Gordon talks about Lange's competing interests between work and home and her contradictory impulses to be simultaneously an independent artist and a "good wife."

I only wish Gordon had spe
Doug Dams
May 25, 2011 Doug Dams rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting biography of an interesting photographer. I always enjoyed Dorothea Lange's photographs of the 30s and 40s. It was interesting to read how she became interested in photography and how she developed as a photographer. Sometimes her family and relationships suffered because of her dedication to photography. The book answered a lot of the questions I had about how she looked at the world and how she photographed it. Plus it discussed the photographers who influenced her and who were ...more
Feb 22, 2011 Wayne rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a historical biography, rather than a biography of an artist. The reproductions of the photographs (in the hardcover edition) are not good. There are few photographs from her early period as a portrait photographer, the style is described in the text, which makes it difficult to establish her starting point. There's minimal discussion of style, technique and influences. Obviously there are many of Lange's photographs to be found in the LOC archive online, from her most prolific and famou ...more
Mar 24, 2012 Nan rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir-bio
Interesting facts about Dorothea Lange: 1) Her real last name was Nutzhorn. Seriously. 2) She was raised Lutheran. 3) Childhood polio left her with a deformed foot that caused her to limp her whole life. 4) She decided to become a photographer before she or anyone in her family ever even had a camera. Who knew?

This meticulous biography, however, is much more than that. Gordon has provided a rich exploration of Lange and the political, social, and economic realities of her time. It's quite a tom
Mar 30, 2013 Shawna rated it really liked it
This book satisfies anyone who loves photography, the Bay Area and the New Deal political environment. When I lived in Berkeley I went to the Oakland Museum of Art who has a huge Dorthea Lange permanent collection. I loved it and reading this book 7 years later was a treat. She was a complex person and the author demonstrates this throughout the book. It is refreshing to read about someone who is not painted in the rosiest way. RIP Dorthea. I wish I could have known you. You have given us a piec ...more
May 21, 2015 David rated it really liked it
I had not heard of Dorothea Lange before I learned about her from a classmate of my 5th grader, who did his "Amazing Americans" project on her. Her life incorporated three of my favorite things - photography, history, and social justice - so how could I resist not learning more about her?
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Linda Gordon is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of numerous books and won the Bancroft Prize for The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. She lives in New York. "
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