Dorothea Lange’s Splendid Circle: Women Photographers in 1920s San Francisco

Dorothea Lange, imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman, Consuelo Kanaga

By 1918, the year Dorothea Lange arrived in San Francisco, trailblazing photographers Imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman, and Consuelo Kanaga were busy doing phenomenal work there. They were Bohemians, bent on living their lives on their own terms.

San Francisco in the 1920s was a fantastically exciting place for women artists. The 1906 Earthquake and Fires had displaced the photography establishment, which wound up creating opportunities for women. Lange was able to find friends, colleagues, and mentors. This community emboldened and transformed her.

Jasmin Darznik, author of The Bohemians, a novel of Dorothea Lange’s early career (Ballantine Books, 2021), introduces our readers to this trailblazing American documentary photographer of the early 20th century, and those in her circle.

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Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange graphic

Though she is most known for her iconic Depression-era photograph “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange’s photographs put a face to nearly every major historical event of the twentieth century, including World War II and the Japanese American internment camps. 

Her photographs are infused with a deep and abiding dedication to documenting the lives of the have-nots in our country—those banished to the fringes by poverty, hardship, forced migration, and discrimination.

Lange’s legendary empathy as a photographer grew from the childhood trauma of contracting polio. She had a particular genius for the language of the body and could suggest a whole story from how people held themselves.

Her limp also made her vulnerable in ways she drew upon in her work. When walking into a migrant camp during the Depression, for example, she’d sometimes let people see her disability, which helped her establish a connection with them. 

In addition to the empathetic portraits of those suffering from poverty and bias, Lange later became known for documenting the Japanese internment camps during the World War II years.

She smuggled out her more daring pictures, lending them to the efforts to halt the internment. Eventually, she was fired by the War Department, and all her photographs of the camps were impounded. They only became known to the public seven decades after she took them.

Learn more about this trailblazer in 10 Fascinating Facts about Dorothea Lange.

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The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik

The Bohemians (a novel of Dorothea Lange’s early career)
is available on Bookshop.org*, Amazon*, and wherever books are sold.
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Anne Brigman

Anne Brigman

Anne Brigman (1869–1950) was a pioneer who made no distinction between her artistic practice and her quest for freedom.

Beginning in 1901, nearly two decades before Lange arrived in California, Brigman was regularly trekking up to the Sierra Nevada, photographing herself on the edge of a cliff like a swaggering buccaneer, or else posing nude in the crook of a wind-warped tree. Soon enough she was causing a scandal by photographing male nudes.

Her technical skills were as notable as her daring. In a cheeky token of admiration, at one 1920s gathering at Lange’s San Francisco portrait studio, a group of male and female photographers bowed before Brigman as a photographic goddess (photo at top right of this post). Eventually, her skill would earn her a place alongside Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in the pioneering Group f/64.

 

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Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976) was one of the first photographers with whom Lange became acquainted when she came to the Bay Area in 1918. When they met Cunningham had already attained a degree of critical recognition rare for a woman in what was still thought of as a man’s profession.

But that wasn’t all that impressed Lange. Cunningham had run a successful portrait studio in Seattle, and while she continued to do portrait work in San Francisco to support herself, Cunningham was making art photography.

Her friends were legion. Ansel Adams esteemed and adored her. She served as an advocate and mentor for many other women photographers. She joined the Women’s Art League in San Francisco, which Dorothea Lange would also join. Her portraits of other women artists include those she took of Frida Kahlo and San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa.

In a tale all too common for women artists, Imogen Cunningham has only recently begun to get her due. In the fall of 2021, the Seattle Art Museum put on the first major retrospective of her work.

 

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Consuelo Kanaga

Consuelo Kanaga

Working in the same vibrant milieu as Cunningham and Lange was Consuelo Kanaga (1894–1978). In 1915, at the age of 21, Kanaga had been hired as a reporter and features writer for The Chronicle—a real feat for a woman of her day. She soon showed a talent for photography and began contributing pictures to the paper as well.

Kanaga was the first woman newspaper photographer Lange had ever met. Many years later, Lange shared her first impressions of this renegade photographer:

“[She] lived in a Portuguese hotel in North Beach, which was entirely Portuguese working men, except Consuelo … She’d go anywhere and do anything. She was perfectly able to do anything at any time the paper told her to. They could send her to places where an unattached woman shouldn’t be sent and Consuelo was never scathed. She was a dasher.”

Lange wouldn’t begin taking documentary photographs until 1932, by which time Kanaga had been practicing a version of that art for over a decade. She’d also bring her radically inclusive eye to people of color, producing portraits of exceptional beauty and power.

 

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Each of the women photographers Dorothea Lange met in San Francisco—Anne Brigman, Imogen Cunningham, and Consuelo Kanaga —was brilliant, tenacious, and brave. Taken together, I’d say they were a force.

Contributed by Jasmin Darznik. Jasmin’s debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird, was a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice,” a Los Angeles Times bestseller, longlisted for the Center for Fiction Prize, and awarded the Writers’ Center’s First Novel Prize. Darznik is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her books have been published in seventeen countries.

Jasmin was born in Tehran, Iran, and came to America when she was five years old. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, a JD from the University of California, and a Ph.D in English from Princeton University. Now a professor of English and creative writing at California College of the Arts, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. To learn more, visit Jasmin Darznik.

 

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