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Dorothea Lange gets 'American Masters' treatment

Dorothea Lange with Graflex in 1937, as seen

Dorothea Lange with Graflex in 1937, as seen in "American Masters -- Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning." Credit: Rondal Partridge Archives

THE SHOW "American Masters: Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning"

WHEN|WHERE Friday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Born in Hoboken in 1895, Lange would later head west and into history, as one of America's most distinguished photographers. In San Francisco, she married artist Maynard Dixon -- they were lousy parents who put their kids into foster homes while both pursued their passions, art and photography. They later divorced, and she married economist Paul Taylor. As a team, they worked for the Farm Security Administration -- she as a staff photographer -- exposing the plight of the homeless and helpless, most often in California's Imperial Valley, and the westward migration during the Dust Bowl years. She died in 1965. This film -- which is framed by an exhibit of her work she was preparing for MoMA before her death -- was produced by her granddaughter, veteran documentary producer Dyanna Taylor.

MY SAY Dorothea Lange finally gets her "Masters" portrait and it's a worthy one, filling in her life and work beyond that one singular photograph -- "Migrant Mother" -- for which she is properly renowned. But the film is a long one -- really long, at an hour and 50 minutes -- and while her life was important and interesting, it was hardly a kinetic one.

She was an artist with a camera who sought out injustice and addressed that, relentlessly. She was an intensely private craftsman, too, who also sought to disappear into herself, partly to avoid disrupting that which she observed, partly by disposition.

At least her work was eloquent. Lange was to hardscrabble America what Ansel Adams was to mountains. She produced a gorgeous, stark panorama of the downtrodden corners of American life, her subjects often melancholy, solitary and drawn in shadows and light. They fill our mind's eye with images of what the Great Depression must have looked like -- yet her work also bestowed a nobility and beauty on her subjects.

Fortunately, this film is generous where it counts most -- hundreds of those photos, not a single one wasted here.

BOTTOM LINE Beautifully done, but settle in -- this is a long love letter.


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