Elise Hooper’s Learning to See, a biographical novel about the life of photographer Dorothea Lange is a timely, fascinating read about a time in America’s history when bad times struck millions.
After moving from the east coast to San Francisco, Dorothea Lange opened a photography studio where she photographs the city’s elite. She met the West Coast top art photographers of the day including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, the last became a close friend. Though Lange knew these titans of photography she was not one of them. They were artists, Lange was a commercial photographer catering to San Francisco’s upper class. During this period, Lange met Maynard Dixon, a well-known artist of western art. They married and had two kids. Lange continued to be successful with her portrait studio work photographing the city’s most successful in society. Her income was steady and there were many times she was the one supporting the family.
Then came the Great Depression.
Lange’s studio work started to dry up. She took her camera outside the studio and found herself emotionally moved by the poverty and homelessness that was more prevalent with each passing day. She met Paul Taylor, an agricultural economist. Taylor was working on a Gov’t project studying Mexican employment patterns in the U.S. He published thirteen monographs on Mexicans immigrants and Mexican-Americans. Taylor was impressed with Lange’s street photography. He felt it expressed what he wrote. They began working together documenting the rural poverty and exploitation of migrants and sharecroppers.
As Lange began the most important part of her career working for the Federal Farm Security Administration photographing the effects of the Dust Bowl: the poverty, the exploitation of migrant workers and sharecroppers, her marriage to Dixon collapsed.
Lange marries Paul Taylor, and while her work reached its most important period documenting social injustices, her private life became more difficult particularly with her son Dan Dixon.
This is a good book, though too much time is spent on Lange’s early years and development before reaching the most important period in her artistic growth. The book ends as Dorothea with her now-adult son Dan prepares for an exhibit of her work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
As the author states in the Afterward, the book is a fictional version of Lange’s life based on the author’s research and the need to make artistic decisions combing and or altering some events but keeping the spirit and soul of her subject intact. She does it well.