When you think of photographer Dorothea Lange, you inevitably visualize “Migrant Mother,” the 1936 portrait of a woman and children that has come to represent the pitiless poverty of the Great Depression. In “Learning to See,” we encounter the photographer as a whole person — and notably a woman — who struggled with her own family traumas and heartbreaking decisions during her climb to the top. For photo buffs and others familiar with her vast body of work, reading the book will be like discovering the secret backstory of someone they thought they knew.
Elise Hooper is the biographer, seamlessly weaving together the time, places and people in Lange’s life. But make no mistake: This is a novel, its story told in the first person by Lange, who died of cancer in 1965. The technique works as a way of amplifying and romanticizing the story, but it presents a problem for the reader: What is fact, and what is fiction?