Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge

J. E. Monteagle
Student, MFA

Just as other books–Children of the Dust Bowl: the true story of the school of Weedpatch Camp, by Jerry Stanley, and Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the crusade against child labor, by Russell Freedman—educated me, an immigrant, around aspects of industrial America’s history of human exploitation and abuses, so too does this work by Elizabeth Partridge. Labeled as young adult reading, Partridge’s story about the life and work of Lange, artist and activist, belies its value to adult readers.

Always looking for affirmations of the intuitive, I want to highlight the chapter about Dorothea driving home to her family in pouring rain, bone tired after a month-long government assignment of sixteen hour days photographing the living condition of Dust Bowl migrants in California. A roadside sign ‘Pea Pickers Camp’ flashed by. Dorothea began arguing with herself about her decision not to stopp until twenty miles on, almost involuntarily, she did a U-turn and headed back to the camp. Partridge tells us in Lange’s words that, “I was following instinct, not reason. I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.”

One of the photos taken that afternoon (Migrant Mother (4), Nipomo, California, 1936—arguably Lange’s most famous image) went worldwide and came to symbolize, for many, the Great Depression. Her story and images about the desperation of the pea pickers caused a national outcry that, Partridge tells us, resulted in the federal government acting immediately and shipping twenty thousand pounds of food to the California fields. Inspiring stuff!
Dust Bowl Migration, Calisphere, University of California
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress
Impounded photographs of Japanese-American internment, NPR
Dorthea Lange Archive, Oakland Museum of California. “The Oakland Museum of California houses Lange’s personal archive, a gift from the artist that includes 25,000 negatives, 6,000 vintage prints, field notes, and personal memorabilia.”

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