Director’s Statement

Dorothea Lange was my grandmother. She was brilliant, charismatic, and complex. Her photographs grew out of her depth as a person. Ever since I began my career in filmmaking, I’ve wanted to make a film about her so people could experience the true breadth of her work, and understand the way she perceived the world.

DT headshot BWOver the years, as we spent time together, she taught me how to see—to literally understand that nothing is as it appears at first glance. When I was 10 in California, I collected a few rocks and shells in my hand and thrust them toward her, probably seeking her approval. Boasting, I said: “Look Grandma, look at these!” I did not get the response for which I’d hoped.  She looked at me with her deep, commanding gaze and said sternly: “Yes, I see them, but do YOU see them?” And she snapped a photo of the shells in my outstretched palm.  I felt dismissed, but also challenged. From that moment on, my grandmother’s words in my mind, I perceived the world differently. To this day, I carry a sense of a deeper truth to be found beneath the surface of things, as much a philosophy of life as an approach to art. It resonates within me, along with everything I learned about composition and framing merely by growing up surrounded by Dorothea’s still photographs – images that were everywhere: in stacks, in drawers, or tacked up in her workroom.

Most people know Dorothea from her penetrating Depression-era photos such as The Migrant Mother, images that portrayed the anguish of the times and shaped the way America came to know itself. But Dorothea’s body of work – work that spanned her lifetime ­­– is much broader than these familiar photos, and the lesser-known images are equally powerful and compassionate.  

What few people know is that Dorothea’s ability to portray repeatedly the challenges of the human condition came from her own pain and infirmity. As a child she contracted polio, which left her with a withered foot.  Each day, when she would walk alone on the streets of the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side to meet her mother, she would hide her limp and make herself, in her words, “unseen”- safe from unwanted attention. Resourceful and courageous, she transformed the lessons she learned from her disability into an artistic strength.  Later in life, Dorothea would say she found it important to make herself “invisible” to her photographic subjects—a state she cultivated so her presence would not influence the images.

Grab a Hunk of Lightning also explores Dorothea’s thirty-year marriage to and collaboration with my grandfather, Paul Taylor. He was an unorthodox economist who insisted that field observation was more important than studying statistics at a desk. His specialties were migrant agricultural labor, the importance of the small family farm, and critical issues, as corporate agriculture expanded, surrounding access to and fair use of water. From the first time Dorothea accompanied him (as his so-called “typist”) on a trip to study labor conditions, their personal and professional lives entwined, and some of Dorothea’s greatest photographs came out of their creative partnership.

I have made a number of films about artists—their muses, struggles, and vision. But it took me years to be ready to make this film. Before I could start, I needed a clear grasp of my grandmother’s impact, both positive and negative, on my personal life.  At first, I had only my intimate childhood memories. Now, having completed nine years of extensive research, I feel able to present a balanced portrait of the public figure that was my grandmother. I’ve searched for Dorothea the woman through journals, diaries, family letters, negatives, and footage, and expanded my understanding of her place in history and documentary photography through my conversations with scholars and artists. The resulting portrait is this film.

These days, everyone has a camera. What are we really seeing? As we enhance and alter photographs with elaborate techniques, I often wonder what Dorothea would say. Her images revealed her subjects with straightforward exactness. Her sense of the beauty in the unaltered truth of life has stayed with me. “See what is really there.” Dorothea said. “Look at it. Look at it.”