Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (PBS)

A new documentary and book examine this photographer's expressive work and the life that inspired it.

American Masters on PBS

Directed by Dyanna Taylor, with a companion book of the same title by Elizabeth Partridge

Run Time: 120 minutess

Aug. 29, 9-11 p.m.

Art, scholarship and family combine in two wonderful interlocking features about the renowned American documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Most famous for her heartrending portraits of Dust Bowl migrants, notably, the internationally famous “Migrant Mother,” Lange stands alone in the realm of women photographers, and for that matter, photographers in general.

Elizabeth Partridge, author of the beautiful book, “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning” is Lange’s goddaughter, and the daughter of photographer Rondal Partridge, Lange’s assistant and son of photographers Imogen Cunningham and Roi Partridge. From this intimate perspective, Partridge presents a well-written comprehensive biography of her godmother. Her book includes over 100 luscious plates of photography, from the famous migrant series to less well-known, but arresting, images from Lange’s later global travels.

Partridge’s book is designed as a companion to the two-hour documentary, also titled “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” that will air on PBS’s American Masters series on Aug. 29, 2014. This fascinating documentary is directed and narrated by Peabody and five-time Emmy award-winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor, the granddaughter of Lange and economist/social scientist Paul Schuster Taylor. Not only does it contain intimate details about Lange’s complicated life and loves, but more importantly, it presents never-before-seen film sequences of Lange preparing for her 1964 one-woman show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Dorothea Lange knew that she wanted to be a photographer before she ever took a picture. After briefly studying photography at Columbia University in New York, she moved to San Francisco and in 1919 she started a successful naturalistic portrait studio there. There she met Maynard Dixon (1875–1946), the renowned artist known for western motifs. He was 20 years her senior and had a daughter from his first marriage. Lange and Dixon had two sons together. But, as their children described (seemingly without much rancor) in the film, the artists were self-absorbed absentee parents. Dixon disappeared into the Southwest to paint for months at a time, and Lange preferred her art to child rearing. During the Depression, the children were boarded in a succession of foster homes, while Lange and Dixon left and returned without notice.

In 1934, Lange met the economist/social scientist Paul Schuster Taylor, professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, under whom she worked for the California State Emergency Relief Administration. In 1935, Lange divorced Dixon and married Taylor. They then both worked for the federal Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, during which time Lange took her stunning migrant worker photographs.

The film of Lange preparing for her 1964 Museum of Modern Art show depicts her in her milieu, her home and studio in Berkeley, Calif. Although then in poor health, she is vibrant while organizing and discussing her work. Lange’s creative approach to the placement of her photographs within the exhibition, how each photograph would look amidst the others, reminded me a bit of Albert Barnes’ involvement with display at the Barnes Foundation.

Dorothea Lange spent her life documenting major 20th-century events that cried for attention — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the 1934 San Francisco general strike, the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (the photos were confiscated by the Army), the 1950s damming of Northern California’s Lake Berryessa. Some describe her style as objective and detached, but for those viewing the not-to-be-missed book and documentary, “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” Lange’s body of work seems subjective and pointed as well as starkly beautiful, expressive and artistic.

Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2014 All Rights reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for