Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Learning to See by Elise Hooper

Learning to See by Elise Hooper is a novelization of Dorothea Lange's life story. For those who aren't familiar with her, Dorothea Lange was a photographer who is probably best known for her Depression-era photographs, particularly "Migrant Mother".

Dorothea's story begins with a crime. She is 22 and has traveled to San Francisco intending to go on to Hawaii with her friend, Fronsie. But, then Fronsie discovers their money has been stolen and they realize they can go no further. Fronsie easily finds a job but Dorothea has to be a bit more clever finding work. With a leg damaged by polio and many employers unwilling to hire a "cripple", she has to pretend she has a minor injury to get a job. Later on, with experience working in a photography studio back East and money from her work locally, she starts her own studio and quickly builds a business photographing wealthy clientele.

This is the beginning of Dorothea's story and I realized, as I was reading it, that I knew little to nothing about her. I knew she was among the photographers hired to document the Depression, but that was about it. Learning to See illuminates her journey from portrait photographer to documentary photographer recording human struggle and how it affected her marriages and her children. If you're interested in photography, as I am, you may be slightly disappointed by the lack of technical description. There is pretty much none. Learning to See is about Dorothea's burning desire to bring light to human suffering, her need to keep moving and working, her hardships and triumphs. It's less about the photography than the photographer and her subject matter.

Recommended but not a favorite - Learning to See is great primarily for the examination of Dorothea Lange's life. I've admired Lange's photography and have seen "Migrant Mother" and other Depression-era photographs by Lange in various books for as long as I can remember, so I enjoyed learning about her. There was something about the book that kept it from being a favorite, though, and I can only describe it as feeling somewhat flat -- perhaps the dialogue didn't ring true to me or I didn't sense a depth of emotion? I'm not even certain I know what it was about the book that I didn't love. But, it was never anything that made me consider setting the book aside. I was enjoying learning about her life too much. I knew so little about Lange that I didn't even realize Lange was not her real name but her mother's maiden name.

Dorothea Lange hung out with other artists and photographers and was married to an artist, so I spent some time looking up the artwork and photography of her acquaintances during the reading. That may have been one of my favorite things about the book, finding artists and photographers who were new to me. The book appears to have been very, very thoroughly researched. At times, I bristled against certain aspects of her life and realized that I didn't want them to be true. Did she really think this, do that? I don't doubt that she did. One of the hazards of learning more about one of your minor heroes is that they always turn out to be human.

I received a copy of Learning to See from HarperCollins in exchange for my review. Many thanks!

©2019 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. It is disappointing to discover that people we admire sometimes have disturbing flaws, but I would like to know more about Lange's life.

    1. Yes to both comments. I'm wearing an Einstein T-shirt, today. I hated finding out he was so awful to his wife with the sleeping around but I can still admire his genius. The same is true of Lange. It's worth reading for the sake of learning about her life, even if I didn't agree with her judgment (particularly as a parent).


Thank you for visiting my blog! I use comment moderation because apparently my blog is a spam magnet. Don't worry. If you're not a robot, your comment will eventually show up and I will respond, with a few exceptions. If a comment smacks of advertising, contains a dubious link or is offensive, it will be deleted. I love to hear from real people! I'm a really chatty gal and I love your comments!