Photo of Dorothea Lange in 1956
Copyright 1968 by Rondal Partridge
Dorothea Lange: The Making of a Documentary Photographer
Conducted by Suzanne Riess in 1960-1961, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley, 1968.
The home of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor at 1163 Euclid Avenue in Berkeley is approached down a steep, banked path. At the end of the walk is a great, large door; gongs and bells give a choice of ways of asking admittance. Inside is a landing, and ahead, down a few steps, is the living room. The dining room is to the right; the stairs, upstairs, are at the left. It is a many-leveled, private, beautiful, 1910 Berkeley house, completely settled into its surroundings.
Our first interview in October 1960 was held in the living room, a room with a view of trees off a balcony at the far end; inside it was all soft colors of wood and oatmeal white painted wool-covered walls and a very warm fire .The black and white of Dorothea's photographs spread across a long working desk in that room. For most of the rest of the interviews we sat in the dining room. It was late afternoon when we talked—Dorothea saved mornings for work—so that it always seemed the sun was setting as the interview closed, and that room received the last rays of light.
It would be fun now to visit the house again and to notice more, to get details, captions, like Dorothea's photographs. But of course it is not a monument; it was and is alive and changing, yet held together by the same taste, effortless-looking and art.
In the interview sessions Dorothea spoke slowly because she allowed herself to reflect and to remember as she spoke. She was really trying to get back, to answer the questions and then to "close the door" on the past. Her speech was quiet and thoughtful; I could not tell when it was mingled with pain from her illness, when not. But she was compelling, spellcasting, and I felt my questions came as rude splashes in the pool of her thoughts.
Obviously I was enchanted with the woman. I still speak and write of impressions of her, not facts. I cannot guess how much she was aware of any specialness about herself. When, in the interview, she spoke about peoples' attitudes towards Maynard Dixon, I should have asked her what she thought others thought about her, and how that affected her, but I did not have such questions in my mind then. Certainly to me she was a different person from the Dorothea who is the subject of the Memorial Service tributes appended; to them, and to Wayne Miller in his tribute, she was the real person who made excellent photographs and ran a real household and was a substance and a strength to her friends and her family.
Dorothea Lange was chosen in 1960 to be interviewed by the Regional Oral History Office because of her part in the history of artistic developments in the Bay Area. She agreed to the interviewing reluctantly, and mostly because of her husband's enthusiasm for the idea. She warned me that she would probably go deep, that she was very interested in the personal, in her own self; at the same time that she doubted how good a subject for interviewing she would be, she allowed that “people who maintain they don't like to have their picture taken usually really do like it.”
The transcript of the interview bothered her. For a long time she was unable to do anything with it. I have notes in my files on conversations with her that reflect her desperation. She said at one point that she had come nearly to throwing the manuscript into the fireplace, but she realized she had to deal with it, that it gave a picture of herself that she did not like but that she thought not entirely false—just not true enough. Again she likened it to, in photography, the difficulty people have in choosing among proofs for the most honest likeness.
In subsequent conversations she was "squirming" or "guilty" about the manuscript. Often she was not well, and then when she was well she was very busy. I gave her the edited transcript in January 1962, and we expected to have it back to type by spring. In February and March she had a series of operations. By August of that year she was better and clearing the way to go to Egypt with Paul Taylor. In October 1963 we talked about her concern about the manuscript while she had been gone, and she admitted her dread of its being released as it then was. When in September 1964 she told me that her cancer was incurable, she had begun desperately to organize her time. That fall she was involved with preparations for her Museum of Modern Art retrospective and a film taping done by KQED, San Francisco, for National Educational Television. Apparently the filming gave her agonies like those endured around editing the manuscript, but it was at some time in there that she read through and corrected the manuscript. Her changes were very few, and minor. Perhaps she had come to terms with her earlier regret that the manuscript was not the absolutely true statement she wished to have made.
Dorothea Lange died on October 11, 1965. However, it was not until 1967 that her husband, Paul Taylor, was ready to read and to agree to the release of the manuscript. In November when I met with Paul Taylor and we went over Dorothea's corrections he added some footnotes and was very helpful in getting material collected to append to the final manuscript.
Suzanne B. Riess, Interviewer
Regional Oral History Office
University of California
July 3, 1968