Her celebrated photograph Migrant Mother is one of the most recognized and arresting images in the world, a haunting portrait that came to represent the suffering of America’s Great Depression. Yet few know the story, struggles and profound body of work of the woman who created the portrait: Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 — Oct. 11, 1965).
American Masters — Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning explores the life, passions and uncompromising vision of the influential photographer, whose enduring images document five turbulent decades of American history, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II Japanese internment camps. Peabody- and five-time Emmy award-winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor — the granddaughter of Lange and writer/social scientist Paul Schuster Taylor — directs and narrates this intimate American Masters documentary.
Taylor, who learned to see the visual world through her grandmother’s eyes, combines family memories and journals with never-before-seen photos and film footage to bring Lange’s story into sharp focus. The result is a personal documentary of the artist whose empathy for people on the margins of society challenged America to know itself.
The film features newly discovered interviews and vérité scenes with Lange from her Bay Area home studio, circa 1962-1965, including work on her unprecedented, one-woman career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Showcasing more than 800 works by Lange, her first husband Maynard Dixon and second husband Paul Schuster Taylor combined, American Masters — Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning reveals the camera as Lange’s first muse and the confluence of artists at work and in love. Explaining the impact of these relationships on Lange’s life and documentary photography style, filmmaker/narrator Dyanna Taylor demonstrates the challenges of balancing artistic pursuits and family.
The documentary weaves Lange telling her own story with new interviews of family, friends and colleagues, including Lange’s son Daniel Dixon; Lange’s goddaughter and biographer Elizabeth Partridge; Richard Conrad, Lange’s assistant for the MoMA exhibit; photographer Rondal Partridge, Lange’s assistant and son of photographers Imogen Cunningham and Roi Partridge; Becky Jenkins, Maynard Dixon’s granddaughter; Dr. Margot Taylor-Fanger, Paul Schuster Taylor’s daughter; and many others.
“My grandmother’s photographs grew out of her depth as a person. Ever since I began my career in filmmaking, I’ve wanted to make a film which would express the true breadth of her work and the ways she perceived the world,” said Dyanna Taylor, whose past work on American Masters films includes Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea and F. Scott Fitzgerald – Winter Dreams. “During my young years, as we spent time together, she taught me how to see, to understand that nothing is as it appears at first glance.”
“We are fortunate to have a family member, who is also a talented filmmaker, telling Dorothea Lange’s remarkable life story in a way that no one else possibly could,” said Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters.
Launched in 1986 by series creator Susan Lacy, American Masters has earned 26 Emmy Awards — including nine for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series since 1999 and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. Now in its 28th season on PBS, the series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET. WNET is the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations, and operator of NJTV. For more than 50 years, THIRTEEN has been a partner with the tri-state community, using its rich resources to inform and inspire the passionate people of New York and the world to better understand and address the issues that challenge our diverse communities.
Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning is a co-production of Raven Rouge, Inc., Katahdin Productions and THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC’s American Masters for WNET. Dyanna Taylor is producer, writer and director. Roberta Grossman is producer. David Leach is editor. Jami Sieber and Evan Schiller are original score composers. Susan Lacy, Michael Kantor and Lisa Thomas are executive producers.
American Masters is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, Jack Rudin, Vital Projects Fund, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, and public television viewers. Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Cal Humanities.