Since I wanted to learn more about Dorothea Lange, Berkeley resident Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s goddaughter and the granddaughter of photographer Imogen Cunningham, graciously agreed to meet with me. Since Partridge’s father, Rondal, had been Lange’s assistant, Partridge grew up as part of Lange’s large extended family, although Lange died when Partridge was 14. Partridge is the author of several well-regarded books about Lange, most recently, the beautiful Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2013), a companion piece to the 2014 PBS American Masters special, directed and narrated by Emmy award-winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor, granddaughter of Lange and Lange’s second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, who was a professor of economics at Berkeley until 1962.
When Lange first met Paul Taylor, with whom Lange worked at the Farm Security Administration, both were married with children, Lange to Western American painter Maynard Dixon. In December 1935, after Lange and Taylor divorced their respective spouses and married each other, they rented a house at 2706 Virginia St. in Berkeley, California. In 1940, they moved nearby to 1163 Euclid Ave., beside Codornices Creek in Berkeley, which was designed in 1910 by Bernard Maybeck’s brother-in-law John White. “She loved that house,” said Partridge. Lange lived and worked in the secluded house until her death in 1965.
As a child, Partridge was a bit daunted by Lange’s forceful personality. “She had amazing fortitude. We called her ‘Dictator Dot,’ she said. Lange had a strong sense of self and was not an easy person with whom to get along. Lange was demanding to those close to her, especially her children and grandchildren. So Partridge wisely kept some distance between her and her godmother, although her admiration for Lange and Lange’s prodigious talent is clear.
Lange often disregarded instructions from her superiors at the Farm Security Administration in order to photograph what she thought was most important to be seen. For example, the FSA told Lange not to photograph “poor Negroes” (to use the then common term), since they might not be as sympathetic to the public as whites, a warning she ignored, Partridge told me. While photographing, Partridge said, “Lange relied on her instinct and her eye.”
Lange was not the typical Berkeley professor’s wife, and didn’t enjoy aspects of it, yet she played the role, Partridge said. Locality was important to both Lange and Taylor. They agreed, before Lange’s death, to donate her archives to the Oakland Museum of California, rather than a museum in San Francisco or elsewhere.
As Partridge reviews Lange’s photographs over time, different images come to the forefront as most resonant to her. “History alters views,” she said.
For me, talking to Elizabeth Partridge about her godmother in her charming Craftsman-style home, and seeing her photographs of Lange is a memory that will remain. It deepened my appreciation for this remarkable photographer.
This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.com
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved.