Book Review: Learning to See

“Well, the more I learn, I realized how little I know.”

~~Elise Hooper – Learning to See:
A Novel of Dorothea Lange, the Woman Who Revealed the Real America

This enchanting novel is a poignant close-up of the awe-inspiring photographer Dorothea Lange, a strong-willed career woman ahead of her time. Elise Hooper draws a delightful story that spans Lange’s success behind the camera in California and across America. With heartwarming details of an early twentieth-century woman’s struggle to balance family, profession, and a passionate love of art, Hooper shows us why Lange was willing to sacrifice everything for what she believed was the greater good.

In 1918, twenty-two-year-old Dorothea Nutzhorn and her best friend arrive in San Francisco with plans to board a ship to travel the world, but a pickpocket takes all their money. The determined Dorothea renames herself Dorothea Lange and, with a little business savvy and a lot of talent with a camera, goes from being penniless to one of the most successful portrait photographers on the West Coast. Her high-society clientele and overnight success quickly gain her the attention of famous painter Maynard Dixon, whom she marries. Soon she has it all: she’s a wife, a mother of two boys, and a professional. Until the market crashes in 1929.

In 1930, the demands of her work and home life come to a head when the Great Depression slows her studio business and the sales of her husband’s paintings drop to zero. Everything Dorothea has worked for—career, marriage, and family—unravels. Separated from her husband and with her sons in foster care, she takes to the streets to document the suffering of others with her camera. “If I was going to give up my family, every second needed to count. The sacrifice had to be worth something bigger than me.” And it isn’t long before her new photographs get the attention they deserve. The phone is ringing off the hook, a well-known professor from the University of California at Berkeley wants to use her work for a story, and she is back in business. Her freelance work leads to a job with the State Emergency Relief Administration. And it is then that Dorothea Lange snaps her famous shot, titled Migrant Mother, in 1936. The Berkeley professor becomes Dorothea Lange’s second husband—her true life partner and best friend.

Learning to See is a book you don’t want to put down; it’s a book you’ll pick up and hug long after you’ve turned the last page. A gem!

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