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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.

One of our most abiding myths about creativity is that of the solitary genius. We can admire the relentless drive it took for a young woman like Dorothea Lange to build a business a hundred years ago and still acknowledge the fact that she did not do it alone. By settling in Northern California, she was entering a community of skilled and innovative photographers, many of them women. Imogen Cunningham and Consuela Kanaga were real women, women she deeply admired, women far more fascinating than I could’ve made up. Lange would likely have accomplished great work anywhere, but the work she did was shaped by the mentors she found and the friends she made.

The relationship that most captured my imagination, however, was between Lange and her Chinese American assistant. Her name was Ah-yee, but she was literally without a name in most accounts, referred to only as the “Chinese girl.” The details about their collaboration were scant but compelling. Together they had transformed Lange’s first studio at 540 Sutter Street into a place of bohemian splendor. I felt, but I could not prove, that the experience of working together must have changed them both.

But who was she? Apart from her beauty and vivaciousness, the one detail attached to her—that she’d attended a mission school—suggested a past she’d outrun, an identity she’d shed even before she showed up at Lange’s studio. She likely would have been young and unmarried. On California’s color line, she would’ve been consigned to the lowest rungs. She would have had far fewer choices than Lange, but her talent and ambition might have been equal.

As a writer of historical fiction, I have a peculiar relationship to history. Whenever I look back in time, I find myself drawn to unknown persons and nameless figures. I find myself looking not solely for what’s there, but for what’s missing, what hasn’t yet been written, what can’t ever be known, except, possibly, partly, through invention. Caroline Lee comes from my imagination, not from the historical record—it couldn’t be otherwise. What I wanted to know about her didn’t exist in historical and sociological records, most of which would have seen her as a someone undeserving of a story.

One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can interrupt history and insert your own tale. The rebellions of my own generation had their roots in the erasure of women like Dorothea Lange’s assistant. I imagined her as mixed-race, an outsider, a child of immigrants or perhaps an immigrant herself—experiences I knew well. Almost immediately I decided to bring her into the picture, and with top billing. In tandem with exploring Dorothea Lange’s artistic coming-of-age, I wanted to question and explore the kind of life this young woman, and more generally, girls and young Asian and immigrant women in cities of the West Coast, led in the early 20th century. In a place and a time when you couldn’t count on anyone setting down your name, much less your story, what was possible and what was beyond imagining?










The Story Behind The Bohemians

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