In his new novel, The Bohemians, Jasmin Darznik looks through a fictional lens at Lange’s beginnings and how we came to know her as a great artist and serious historian. Darznik retraces her steps from a commercial photographer who made a living making 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 a government decree to live in company margin.
Imagining the turning point in the life of an artist, and even less of a figure as well-known as Lange, takes a bit of art in itself. Darznik writes in first person, with Lange as the narrator, telling her life story before she embarked on her stint with the Farm Security Administration to document the Dust Bowl and the Depression. The result is a believable portrayal of Lange as an impressionable 23-year-old from Hoboken, New Jersey, arriving in San Francisco in 1918, lame from a childhood battle with polio and nearly penniless.
She meets Caroline Lee on a city bus after spending the night in a park. The stylish Chinese-American, a skilled seamstress forced to work for low wages in a department store basement, ignores taunts from white passengers and speaks with Lange from her large camera case. Lange had been the apprentice of Arnold Genthe in New York, the famous photographer from San Francisco’s Chinatown; “Genthe,” she said, “had set my mind on fire and trained my eye. “
Their chance encounter leads Lange into two important aspects of post-WWI San Francisco. The first place Lee takes him is the Monkey Block, a vast maze 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 bohemian mix, Lee introduces him to professional female photographers, Consuelo Kanaga and Imogen Cunningham, both of whom will have a big impact on Lange’s work. It was also where Lange first saw flamboyant artist Maynard Dixon, whom she would later marry.
The number of people Lange meets – from Ansel Adams to Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frida Kahlo and Donaldina Cameron – is staggering. Fortunately, Darznik includes an afterword that explains who is real and who replaces a historical figure.
Lange’s friendship with Lee also gives him a keen awareness of the anti-Chinese sentiment so prevalent in the city. Despite the elite’s mad affection for the attributes of Japonism, Asian Americans – especially Chinese women – have no rights and are treated with contempt. Even starving white families during the Spanish Flu pandemic insult Lee when she delivers food to them.
Lange began his career taking photos of wealthy families, and Lee became his office manager. In Lange’s biographies, Lee is mentioned as his studio assistant; Darznik chose to consider a deeper friendship between the two. From Lee, Lange learns about the trafficking of “Chinese girls as young as nine who have been drugged, made up and dressed in scraps of discarded silk.” The unruly ones were burned with dripping hot wax, burned with metal tongs, chained to beds.
Darznik undoubtedly tapped into her own artistic growth as she tried to understand Lange’s transformation. She was born in Tehran and came to the United States at the age of five. Like Lange, she therefore understands what it means to be an outsider in an unfamiliar culture. A serious scholar with a law degree from the University of California and a PhD in English from Princeton, Darznik turned to fiction when publishing his first novel, Song of a captive bird, in 2018. This book, a choice of the editors of the New York Times Book Review, is also inspired by the life of a woman artist, the Iranian poet and director Forough Farrokhzad.
The strength of The Bohemians is not only the deep meaning of Lange’s development as a socially conscious artist, but also the way in which Darznik intertwines the political tenor of the time, especially the prejudices and anti-Asian laws and the encroachment of the Depression. It is the latter that Darznik identifies as the impetus for Lange to move from commercial photography to documentary photography. “Taking pictures in the street was different from working in the studio,” she recalls. “But I knew how to trust my eye.” She saw men “who felt the need and the misery […] sitting on the sidewalks as if they had been wrecked there.
Although his camera is too big to hide, no one seems to be paying attention. It focuses on a man in a tattered coat and hat, whose “bald cheeks were hollow and his hands folded in front of him as if he was praying.” This is the photo we know as White Angel Bread Line. She hangs it in her studio next to her portraits of Levi Strausses, Haases and Youngs.
There are many echoes of the themes of the novel in the world today – from the influenza pandemic of 1918, which created a “beautiful but unsettling silence” that allows Lange to hear the birds singing in the city. , scapegoats and vicious hate crimes against Asians, as well as the “ruthless and ugly face” of misery, where “crowds of scruffy souls” live in makeshift tents on the sidewalk.
Darznik writes that she wanted to examine Lange’s beginnings as a photographer at a time when “photography was not generally seen as an art or a documentary.” In doing so, she also illuminated some pivotal moments in California history that have become part of our present.
Elaine Elinson is the former editor-in-chief of ACLU News and co-author of Wherever there is a fight, winner of a gold medal at the 2010 California Book Awards.