Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning

July 21, 2015

By Helena Kardova

Dyanna Taylor responding to questions on Skype.

Dorothea Lange introduced a tenderness to documentary photography, which has since elevated her images to an iconic status and pushed US citizens to come to terms with darker aspects of their collective history.

On Monday 20 July 2015, the Frontline Club hosted a preview screening of the PBS documentary Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning. The film looks back at the photographer’s life through the spectrum of preparations for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966 – the first retrospective that the museum had dedicated to a woman photographer. Dyanna Taylor, director and Dorothea Lange’s granddaughter, joined the Frontline Club audience for a discussion via Skype following the screening.

Taylor spent 11 years investigating her grandmother’s life and work. “Learning about her as an adult and deeply understanding her from an adult perspective was very different from my childhood memory of her,” she said.

“The image of the white horse was where it began when I was a child. That image carried me through the entire time,” Taylor remembered. She added that she personally connected most to ‘Death of a Valley’, a photographic series documenting the mass displacement caused by the construction of the Monticello dam in California.

Taylor told the audience that the most exciting part of the filmmaking experience was, “working to get the black and white material of her that was taken in the sixties.”

Taylor also explained that she was not able to include certain of her grandmother’s photographs, because a number of batches from the later-impounded series on the internment of Japanese Americans had been, perhaps intentionally, lost. What remains is now available online. “The work was quietly released by the United States National Archives,” she explained.

Taylor said that she had wanted to highlight that Dorothea Lange’s creative process had depended heavily on her collaboration with others. “I wanted to bring my grandfather [Paul Taylor] forward in the film, because he was a very understated and private individual,” she said.

The photographer was able to pursue her vocation in a way that was common and accepted only for men at that time. But this dedication to her work came at a high price. “The complexity came when she had children, and when she was forced to choose between the two,” Taylor said.

Sending her children to live with different families was the ransom that Lange paid for her many professional achievements. “It did great damage to my family and I think she ultimately saw that damage at the end of her life,” Taylor said.

The filmmaker decided to focus largely on family history rather than addressing the story behind ‘Migrant Mother’, Lange’s most widely-recognised photograph.

An audience member asked Taylor to comment on the story behind the iconic image: Florence Owen Thompson, the photograph’s subject, has since commented that information published alongside her image was incorrect. Taylor agreed that such a photograph would be much harder to snap today.

“It’s very hard for us now to really show what’s happening in the world, certainly in the United States,” she said.