Private Project

Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning

Explore, through her granddaughter’s eyes, the life story of Dorothea Lange, the photographer who captured the iconic image “Migrant Mother”. Never-seen-before photos, film footage, interviews, family memories, and journals reveal the artist who challenged America to know itself.
Lange’s enduring images document five turbulent decades of American history, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II Japanese American Internment camps, and early environmentalism. Yet few know the story, struggles, and profound body of work of the woman behind the camera. Award winning cinematographer Dyanna Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter, directs and narrates this intimate documentary as it explores Lange’s life, probes the nature of her muses – two great men and the camera itself – and her uncompromising vision. Taylor, who learned to see the visual world at her grandmother’s feet, weaves Lange’s preparations for her career retrospective at New York’s MoMA into a universal story of a woman’s struggle to live a creative life.

  • Dyanna Taylor
    Vanished!, Annapurna: A Woman's Place
  • Dyanna Taylor
  • Roberta Grossman
    Have Nagilah:The Movie, Blessed is the Match
  • Dorothea Lange
    Key Cast
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Feature, Television
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 50 minutes 54 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    August 29, 2014
  • Production Budget:
    900,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Broadcast on PBS American Masters
    Nationwide broadcast
    August 29, 2014
Director Biography - Dyanna Taylor

Dyanna Taylor is a five-time Emmy award winning Cinematographer and Director of Photography whose prominent career in documentaries and features has also earned her a Peabody Award and the honored Muse Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Vision and Achievement in Cinematography from New York Women in Film and Television.

She has traveled the world lensing and directing films, documentaries, and television specials on social issues and environmental/wildlife concerns. Her extensive credits include work for all of the major network and cable media organizations including HBO, PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS and Nat Geo. Recently, she was 2nd Unit Director of Photography for the Disney feature McFarland, scheduled for release in fall of 2014, and is currently shooting Sleep for National Geographic. Taylor is also well known for her work as Director and Co-Producer of Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, which tells the gripping story of the first American women’s ascent of Annapurna I, and the tragic deaths of two of the climbers during the filming. She has a strong commitment to innovative, independently produced films and a deep interest in the world of art and the artistic mind. In progress: a film, shot over a period of 20 years, focused on artist James Turrell’s work at the Roden Crater.

A Buddhist, lover of animals and the natural world, Taylor also co-leads retreats for Media Makers.

Her film: Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, has special meaning for Taylor. She is Lange’s granddaughter, and has been deeply influenced by her grandmother’s sensibility and esthetic. This relationship has given Taylor access to never-before-seen footage, photographs, and journals. Combining Taylor’s memories and personal understanding with thorough scholarship, her film gives the viewer both an understanding and felt sense of the woman whose influential 20th century work revealed America to America.

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Director 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.

Over 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.”