Check This Out: Dorothea Lange—Grab a Hunk of Lightning

Greetings one and all. With me on the blog today is one of the four awesome advisors who guided me while I was a student at VCFA. Please join me in welcoming the amazing Elizabeth Partridge. Welcome, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction books, including Marching for Freedom; John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth; Dogtag Summer; This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie; and Big Cat Pepper—just to name a few. Cool, huh? And if you’re wondering which awards she won, here’s a handy list: National Book Award Finalist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Michael L. Printz Honor, SCBWI Golden Kite Award, SLJ’s Battle of the Books, and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

       MarchingForFreedomDogtagSummer%20final%20cover

9780670059546_zoom_1Impressive, huh? Elizabeth is represented by Steven Malk at Writers House. She’s here today to talk about her latest nonfiction book, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (Chronicle Books), which debuted last month. Even if Dorothea’s name doesn’t sound familiar, I’m betting her work is. Recognize the photo at the right? This photo, “Migrant Mother 1936,” is one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century. According to Amazon, this book “is the only career-spanning monograph of this major photographer’s oeuvre in print, and features images ranging from her iconic Depression-era photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ to lesser-known images from her global travels later in life.” One of you will win a copy of this book. But let’s talk to Elizabeth first!

          Dorothea_Lange_Cover Migrant Mother [1936]

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Elizabeth: 1. I write nonfiction and fiction for kids and young adults, and nonfiction for adults (so far).
2. I live in the house I grew up in. It’s a big, huge Berkeley house.
3. I live with my 96-year-old dad, my husband, our son, his fiancée, dogs, cats, and chickens.
4. I was an acupuncturist for more than twenty years.

El Space: Cool! Now, this isn’t your first book on Dorothea Lange. How did this new project come about? Where did the title—Grab a Hunk of Lightning—come from?
Elizabeth: Dorothea Lange was my godmother. My father, Rondal Partridge, knew he wanted to be a photographer when he was a teenager, and his mother, Imogen Cunningham, sent him to work with a couple photographers she called “family friends.” Ron worked with Ansel Adams for a while in Yosemite, and then went to work for Dorothea. He packed her camera bags, drove her around the backroads of California, developed her negatives, printed her prints, etc. Gradually he was folded into the family, and we all grew up with her. She was the undisputed matriarch of our family, and had more influence on me creatively and politically than anyone else.

Elizabeth_Partridge_and_Dorothea_Lange-p18bsa89361p6eppb8lg1nnl1l1u

Elizabeth Partridge with her godmother, Dorothea Lange

WhiteAngelBreadlineSF1933The title of the book, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, comes from something Dorothea said. She was a portrait photographer in San Francisco when the Great Depression hit. One day she was looking out her second floor studio window and saw an unemployed man below come to the corner and pause. He didn’t know which way to go. She decided she better make something happen. So she went out with her camera and took a few photographs. She went back to her studio, developed and printed the images, and put one up on the wall. She said she did it to see if she could “just grab a hunk of lightning.” The photo, “White Angel Breadline,” became one of her best known images.

Dorothea’s granddaugher, Dyanna Taylor, is making a film by the same title. It will air on PBS’s American Masters in the fall of 2014. Dyanna is one of my lifelong best friends, and it has been a blast working on this project together.

El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of working on this book? How long was the process from start to finish?
Elizabeth: Challenging? Hmm. Probably the schedule. Books take a long time once they are turned in to the publisher before they are in the bookstores. We were really burning the midnight oil on this one. I think I did the whole thing in about 10 or 11 months. The fun challenge was to put images in the book that had never been seen before. Between never and rarely seen, I think I got about 15 or 16 images in.

El Space: Some nonfiction books have come under fire over the years because the authors were less than factual. What tip(s) do you have for ensuring accuracy in nonfiction?
Elizabeth: I’m a stickler for Telling the Truth. Get it right. The best way to do this is to track back to primary source documents.

El Space: You’ve written a number of biographies. Is there a dream biography you’d like to write? If so, whose?
Elizabeth: A dream biography. . . . Yep, I do have one in mind. But it is still a secret until I see if there is enough material for me to do it. Hint: the most dramatic and important and heartbreaking part takes place in WWII.

160057El Space: What book, if any, inspired you as a child or teen?
Elizabeth: I could have been a poster child for a bookworm. I used to walk to the library on Friday and pick up a stack of books to read. I was pretty omnivorous. I loved those biographies that now we know are all made up . . . a whole series of important people. They had blue or orange covers, depending on when you read them . . . first or second printing I suppose. For some reason lately, I’ve been thinking about one of my all time childhood favorites: David and the Phoenix [by Edward Ormondroyd]. It made me feel the world was alive with all kinds of magical creatures, all kinds of possibilities and adventures. It also was one of those stunning moments after I read it when I read the back flap and realized . . . real people write books.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Elizabeth: Right now I’m working on a book on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. I’m interviewing vets who came back. Through their stories I want to tell the stories of those whose names are on the wall: the men and women who didn’t come back. It’s an honor to do these interviews.

Thanks, Elizabeth, for being my guest! Interviewing you has been an honor for me!

Looking for Elizabeth? You can find her at her website, Facebook, and Twitter. Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning can be found here:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Powell’s Books

One of you will win this beautiful book for your collection. Just comment below. Winner to be announced on Thursday, December 19.

Author photo and covers from Elizabeth Partridge’s website. “Migrant Mother 1936” photo from historicalphotographsoftheworld.blogspot.com. “White Angel Breadline” photo from columbia.edu. David and the Phoenix cover from Goodreads.

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30 thoughts on “Check This Out: Dorothea Lange—Grab a Hunk of Lightning

  1. Being a John Lennon fan, I have seen a documentary entitled Gimme The Truth, not sure if there is any connection? I do know that is the title of one of his solo songs.
    And you know how much I love old photographs-I have seen Migrant Mother before, all the hardship and struggle etched on her face as her kids cling to her. Stunning.

  2. Lovely interview. I think with the Common Core being adopted in so many classrooms, nonfiction for young people will become a hugely expanding market. It was fun/interesting to learn more about it!

  3. Thank you, Linda and Betsy, for this delightful and interesting interview! And for giving me a fabulous Christmas gift idea!:)

  4. Awesome interview! I love Betsy’s books and look forward to reading this one. What a wonderful opportunity, getting to know and work with Dorothea Lange! I imagine that puts a lot of pressure on “getting it right,” though.

  5. I had the pleasure to have met Elizabeth and her father and family on a recent trip with a good friend of mine. I am looking forward to reading her new book about Dorthea Lange. I had to do a report on her when I went through the military photojournalism program at Syracuse university when I was in the navy back in the 80’s. Thank you Elizabeth for your hospitality!!! Joan

  6. Pingback: Just Perfect | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

  7. I was charmed to read Elizabeth mention “David and the Phoenix” as one of her all time favorite books as a child. I had searched out a copy several years ago for our school library and now will go back to my school, dust off this book and book-talk it more forcefully!

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