AG: I’ve always thought of Dorothea Lange as a working-class photographer, an impression garnered from her portraits taken during the Dust Bowl Migration and the Great Depression. I was surprised to learn that she ran a portrait studio catering to wealthy clientele. And yet, her studio is evidence of her working-class background. She needs money and holds no illusions about the necessity of cultivating high-paying clientele. In the novel, Dorrie pushes back against the label of artist, identifying more as a worker, a distinction that reveals much about gender and class. She’s gritty and determined and hard-working. I found myself cheering for her business to succeed. How were you able to home in on this essential conflict in her attitude towards her photography? Dorrie’s pragmatic attitude affords her financial independence, but at a great cost. She’s wedded to the studio, rarely taking breaks. What are the costs and benefits of her extraordinary work ethic? What can today’s artists learn from Dorrie’s entrepreneurism?
JD: It feels like an almost irreconcilable tension, doesn’t it? Between Lange, the society photographer, and Lange, the documentary activist. She did not come from money. As a working woman, and often the sole breadwinner of her family, she had no time to indulge in dreams of becoming an artist. Of course, she brought an artist’s eye to her work, but it was for her very much work. Lange never stopped taking portraits—it was that with the Depression she changed the subject of her portraits to ordinary people, and she worked just as hard for them than she did for her wealthy patrons.
The costs were, as you say, significant. By her own admission, she was not a “good mother.” Her work took her away from her children for long periods of time, and they grew up resentful. My sense is that she felt her work was necessary—to support her sons, for one, but also, and not insignificantly, because she felt herself called to do it. In rejecting her ambition, she would have been rejecting a vital part of herself. Later, as she grew older, her extraordinary work ethic took a toll on her body. She’d had polio as a child and in the last decades of her life she experienced post-polio syndrome and other physical ailments. And yet when you watch footage of her in the last year of her life when she’s putting together photographs for the Met’s major retrospective, you see how very much she loves her work. Whatever it cost her, it was the point of her life.
Read the full interview here.
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