Before “Migrant Mother”

June 2, 2021   •   By Elaine Elinson

The Bohemians

Jasmin Darznik

DOROTHEA LANGE HAD a talent for revealing the complexity of her human subjects — from Dust Bowl migrants to Japanese American families incarcerated in desolate internment camps, she photographed tragedy. Her iconic and haunting images of the 1930s and 1940s document the lives of individuals in the midst of political and social upheaval.

In her new novel, The Bohemians, Jasmin Darznik gazes through a fictional lens at Lange’s early history and how we came to know her as a great artist and serious historian. Darznik traces her steps from a commercial photographer who made a living taking portraits of San Francisco’s elite to an artist who wanted to show the world the faces of those who were forced by poverty or government decree to live at the edges of society.

Imagining the turning point in the life of an artist, much less such a well-known figure as Lange, takes a bit of artistry itself. Darznik writes in the first person, with Lange as narrator, telling the story of her life before she embarked on her sojourn with the Farm Security Administration to document the Dust Bowl and the Depression. The result is a believable portrait of Lange as an impressionable 23-year-old from Hoboken, New Jersey, arriving in San Francisco in 1918, lame from a childhood bout with polio and almost penniless.

She meets Caroline Lee on a city bus after spending the night in a park. The elegant Chinese American, a skilled seamstress forced to work for low wages in a department store basement, ignores the taunts of white passengers and talks with Lange about her large camera case. Lange had been an apprentice to Arnold Genthe in New York, the famed photographer of San Francisco’s Chinatown; “Genthe,” she says, “had ignited my mind and trained my eye.”

Their fortuitous meeting leads Lange into two important aspects of post–World War I San Francisco. The first place Lee takes her is the Monkey Block, a vast warren of artist studios on Montgomery Street in the heart of the Barbary Coast. “If one room had an easel, another had a dressmaker’s dummy, and the third a grand piano.” In this mélange of bohemians, Lee introduces her to professional women photographers, Consuelo Kanaga and Imogen Cunningham, both of whom would have a great impact on Lange’s work. It is also where Lange first sees the flamboyant artist Maynard Dixon, whom she would later marry.

The array of people that Lange meets — from Ansel Adams to Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frida Kahlo, and Donaldina Cameron — is dizzying. Thankfully, Darznik includes an afterword that explains who is real and who is a stand-in for a historic figure.

Lange’s friendship with Lee also gives her an acute awareness of the anti-Chinese sentiment so prevalent in the city. Despite the elite’s faddish affection for the trappings of Japonisme, Asian Americans — especially Chinese women — have no rights and are treated with disdain. Even the starving white families during the Spanish flu pandemic insult Lee when she delivers them food.

Lange begins her career by taking photos of wealthy families, and Lee becomes her office manager. In biographies of Lange, Lee is mentioned as her assistant in the studio; Darznik has chosen to envision a deeper friendship between the two. From Lee, Lange learns of the trafficking of Chinese “girls as young as nine who were drugged and dolled up and dressed in bits of cast-off silk. The unruly ones were burned with dripping hot wax, seared with metal tongs, chained to beds.”

Darznik no doubt drew on her own artistic growth as she attempted to understand Lange’s transformation. She was born in Tehran and came to the United States when she was five years old, so like Lange, she has an understanding of what it means to be an outsider in an unfamiliar culture. A serious academic, with a law degree from the University of California and a PhD in English from Princeton, Darznik turned to fiction, publishing her debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird, in 2018. That book, an Editors’ Choice from The New York Times Book Review, is also based on the life of a woman artist, the Iranian poet and film director Forough Farrokhzad.

The strength of The Bohemians is not only the deep sense of Lange’s development as a socially aware artist, but also how Darznik interweaves the political tenor of the time, most importantly anti-Asian prejudice and laws and the encroaching Depression. It is the latter that Darznik identifies as the impetus for Lange to veer from commercial to documentary photography. “Taking pictures on the street was different from working in the studio,” she reflects. “But I knew to trust my eye.” She saw men “who smelled of need and misery […] sitting on sidewalks as if they’d been shipwrecked there.”

Though her camera is too big to hide, no one seems to pay her any mind. She focuses on a man in a ragged coat and hat, whose “stubbled cheeks were hollow and his hands folded before him as if in prayer.” This is the photo we have come to know as White Angel Breadline. She hangs it in her studio right next to her portraits of the Levi Strausses, Haases, and de Youngs.

There are many echoes of the novel’s themes in today’s world­ — from the 1918 influenza pandemic, which created a “beautiful but unsettling silence” that allows Lange to hear the birds singing in the city, to the scapegoating and vicious hate crimes against Asians, as well as the “merciless and ugly face” of want, where “crowds of bedraggled souls” live in makeshift tents on the sidewalk.

Darznik writes that she wanted to examine Lange’s start as a photographer at a time when “photography wasn’t commonly thought of as art or documentary.” In doing so, she has also illuminated some pivotal moments in California’s history that fold into our present.

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Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight, winner of a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.