Gordon expertly analyzes the political culture of Depression-era California, where the enormous power of big agriculture kept tens of thousands of landless workers in peonage and despair. She portrays Lange as an ambivalent radical, deeply sympathetic to the plight of the migrants yet uncomfortable with the chaos that social conflict inevitably produced. Early in the Depression, Lange had tried but failed to photograph the labor protests that shook San Francisco....
A portrait photographer at heart, Lange stressed the inner emotions of those facing injustice and deprivation. “Her documentary photography was portrait photography,” Gordon says. “What made it different was its subjects, and thereby its politics.” An individualist at heart, Lange provided an alternative to the photography of wretchedness, which centered on the misery of beaten-down victims, as well as to the Popular Front mythology, which showed earnest, well-muscled men and women laboring together in fields and factories to produce a Soviet-style paradise on earth. Lange saw America as a worthy work in progress, incomplete and capable of better. By portraying her subjects as nobler than their current conditions, she emphasized the strength and optimism of our national character. She became, in Gordon’s words, “America’s pre-eminent photographer of democracy.”
Linda Gordon delivered a lecture on the book at U.C. Berkeley, posted here.
Also reviewed in the New York Times is THE TYRANNY OF E-MAIL: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman and THE FOURTH STAR: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe.
Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars by William Patry is taken up in the Los Angeles Times; The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan is reviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.