“To take a truly good picture you need to learn to see, not just look.”
In 1918, a young and bright-eyed Dorothea Lange arrives in San Francisco, where a disaster kick-starts a new life. Her friendship with Caroline Lee, a vivacious, straight-talking Chinese American with a complicated past, gives Dorothea entrée into Monkey Block, an artists' colony and the bohemian heart of the city. Dazzled by Caroline and her friends, Dorothea is catapulted into a heady new world of freedom, art, and politics. She also finds herself unexpectedly falling in love with the brilliant but troubled painter Maynard Dixon. Dorothea and Caroline eventually create a flourishing portrait studio, but a devastating betrayal pushes their friendship to the breaking point and alters the course of their lives.
The Bohemians captures a glittering and gritty 1920s San Francisco, with a cast of unforgettable characters, including cameos from such legendary figures as Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, and D.H. Lawrence. A vivid and absorbing portrait of the past, it is also eerily resonant with contemporary themes, as anti-immigration sentiment, corrupt politicians, and a devastating pandemic bring tumult to the city—and the gift of friendship and the possibility of self-invention persist against the ferocious pull of history.
As Dorothea sheds her innocence, her purpose is awakened and she grows into the artist who would create pictures—like her iconic Depression-era photograph, Migrant Mother—that would break the hearts and open the eyes of a nation.
"It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco."
A new city can change you, in the way a friend can change you, and there are moments in life where both happen at once. San Francisco was such a point of intersection for Dorothea Lange.
The Bohemians focuses on a time when she wasn’t yet an icon, but rather a young woman finding her way forward through life. In writing it, I wanted to think about what had made her who she became. I wanted to explore the beginnings of her career, her start as a photographer at a time when photography wasn’t commonly thought of as art or documentary. I wanted to trace how her training as a high-society portrait photographer prepared her for what came next: her life’s work documenting ordinary and often unseen people. And I wanted to explore the ways that San Francisco, and California more broadly, transformed her sense of herself as both a woman and a photographer.
"I let my hands drop to my sides and looked at my reflection more closely. The dress was a low-necked cocktail gown, robin’s egg blue. Voluptuous, rich, intoxicating. Silk—it had to be. The dress was a bit loose in the chest and I’d never worn anything like it, not by a mile. Not by ten miles. But it was very beautiful and, anyway, didn’t I want a change? Wasn’t that the point of leaving home in the first place?"