Photographer Dorothea Lange – the Berkeley Years and More
June 6, 2017 | Mary Corbin
Berkeley has been home to numerous luminaries over the years and still is, as the beating heart of academia and the arts in the Bay Area. One notable resident from the past is the acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange. Her name may not ring a bell right off for everyone, but I guarantee her iconic work is recognized immediately. Most prominent are her candid and powerful photographs which captured the plight of displaced families of migrant workers and tenant farmers; Depression Era street scenes; Japanese-American internment in California and other disenfranchised populations, forcing the viewer to see the unseen and forgotten. The photo that most people immediately recognize from this era is the deeply expressive, Migrant Mother.
Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey and studied photography at Columbia University in New York City. She landed, quite by chance and circumstance, in San Francisco with a friend and took up residence there briefly while working as a photo finisher. Soon she opened her own portrait studio and took up with Maynard Dixon, an emerging California painter, married him in 1920, with whom she had two sons. In her early years as a studio portrait photographer serving the elite and wealthiest of San Francisco society, Lange began to break away from that work to blossom into the artist-cum-activist she is known as today. “The discrepancy between what I was working on in my portrait frames and what was going on in the street was more than I could assimilate. I set myself a big problem. I would go down there…to see if I could grab a hunk of lightning”, the artist said.
In 1935, while living in Berkeley, Lange divorced Dixon and married economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley and for the next five years they collaborated on documenting rural poverty and the exploitation of laborers; Dorothea as photographer and Taylor as data gatherer and interviewer. In 1945, Lange was invited by Ansel Adams to join the Fine Arts Photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, along with noted photographers Minor White and Imogen Cunningham.
The website of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project notes her former Berkeley residence as “1163 Euclid Avenue, a secluded house beside Codornices Creek” in North Berkeley. The home, which narrowly escaped the 1923 Berkeley Fire, was designed in 1910 by Bernard Maybeck’s brother-in-law John White. In 1940 Dorothea and Paul moved here from a rented nearby home on Virginia Street with their four children from previous marriages. If you’ve ever meandered across the bridge in Codornices Park and ambled towards the steep staircase that winds up into the hills, you have passed the rear views of this home. Lange had her darkroom in this house and the family resided in the creekside home until her death from Cancer in 1965 at the young age of 70.
And of particular note is the current exhibit at the Oakland Museum, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, through August 13. From the website: “Lange’s photographs demonstrate how empathy and compassion—focused through art—can trigger political action. View approximately 100 photographs, including vintage prints, unedited proof sheets, personal memorabilia and historic objects. Examine how Lange’s artistry and advocacy swayed minds and prompted significant change in this nation’s history. Discover how her work continues to resonate with millions, illustrating the power of photography as a form of social activism.” Don’t miss this opportunity to become better acquainted with one of Berkeley’s most iconic and distinguished past residents.
As part of her legacy, Lange and Taylor published An American Exodus in 1941, an elegant rendering of the human experience in text and images. The book remains a seminal work in documentary studies today and etches Lange’s name and work into the pantheon of greatest 20th Century artists. In 1990, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University created the “Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize” to “encourage collaboration between documentary writers and photographers in the tradition of the acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange and writer and social scientist Paul Taylor.”
For more on Dorothea Lange, view the documentary “Grab a Hunk of Lightening“
* Photos by Dorothea Lange. Photograph of Lange on car: Paul S. Taylor, Photo of older Lange: Wayne Miller *