Sunday, February 09, 2014

a family affair

I had the good fortune yesterday of attending a presentation at the Hispanic Cultural Center by Dyanna Taylor, film-maker and grand-daughter of Dorothea Lange.  She showed some clips from a film she made which I believe is scheduled to show on PBS at some point soon.  There is also a book with the same title Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning authored by Elizabeth Partridge who is the daughter of Rondal Partridge, Lange's assistant and son of Imogen Cunningham.

Migrant Mother -- Nipomo, Calif. 1936
The film contains some restored footage which was shot as Lange, with Rondal Partridge's assistance, was sorting through her negatives, selecting images to be included in the first solo exhibit by a woman at the Museum of Modern Art.  Lange had been seriously ill for twenty years before that historic show and died a couple months before the opening.  However, as can be seen in the clips, she retained her amazing vitality and lucidity right to the end.

As impressive as her talent was, Lange often had to fight to get her pictures published.  In Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond LimitsLinda Gordon recounted how Lange's insightful captions to her pictures made for the FSA were often censored through the influence of right-wing Agricultural Dept. bureaucrats.  Lange ran into even more egregious censorship when she was hired by the Office of War Information to document the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans to the Manzanar camp at the beginning of WWII.

The intent of the government's propaganda machine was to emphasize the humane manner in which the imprisonment was conducted, but they soon realized they had made a serious mistake in hiring a whistle-blower to do the job.  Taylor recounted how minders were assigned to follow Lange everywhere she went, and how they constantly interfered with her efforts to portray anything they thought hinted at the crimes that were being committed against Japanese-Americans.  The experience was devastating for Lange, but she stuck it out until the OWI finally fired her.  Her pictures of the internment were suppressed for about a decade and some have never been found.

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