Grab A Hunk of Lightning, a 110-minute film narrated and directed by Dorothea Lange’s granddaughter, award-winning filmmaker Dyanna Taylor, tells the compelling story of the passion, vision, and drive that made Lange one of the most important documentary photographers of the 20th century. While Lange’s haunting image The Migrant Mother is one of the most recognized photographs in the world, few know the full range and depth of Lange’s work or the suffering and sensitivity that drew her to empathize with the people she photographed. Grab A Hunk of Lightning brings the wide scope of Lange’s work and sensibility to the screen.
Drawing from personal memories, journals and letters, never-before-seen private and archival footage and photographs, with interviews conducted during eight years of intensive research, Taylor weaves together Lange’s private and public worlds: the childhood polio that left her with a withered foot, the will she summoned to overcome physical obstacles and the toll her ambition and creative passion took on her personal life. Taylor presents an insider’s view of Lange’s challenging marriage to Western artist Maynard Dixon and her second marriage to unconventional labor economist Paul Taylor, a life-long creative partnership that led to some of Lange’s most compelling work. We see, often for the first time, the range of subjects Lange captured with her unsentimental lens: relocated Native Americans, striking workers, destitute migrants, early environmental depredations, and wartime photos of Japanese Americans citizens forced into internment camps, images so unsettling to the US government they were impounded for half a century. Taylor also shares rare footage of Lange preparing for her unprecedented one-woman show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an event the photographer would not live to see.
Taylor’s film is more than a retelling of an artist’s life. It illuminates the deeply held beliefs that allowed Lange to create such power in her photographs. “You have to annihilate yourself,” she said, “so you can become a vessel…to see what is really there.” By making herself nearly invisible to her subjects, Lange achieved the intimacy that was the hallmark of her work, and produced images that propelled America toward social justice. She fulfilled the challenge she set for herself inside her studio in 1933, to “grab a hunk of lightning.” The issues that moved Lange face America still, and her legacy remains a call to action, asking us to always examine the unaltered truths around us.