We all struggle to see other people. Distraction, fear, prejudice and apathy blind us. But every so often, someone brings strangers into sharper focus, and we are able to really see them. In her new novel “The Bohemians,” Bay Area novelist Jasmin Darznik has written a compelling story about legendary photographer Dorothea Lange. Darznik imagines how Lange refined her skills in 1920s San Francisco and went on to create piercing, iconic images of powerless people enduring the hardships of the Great Depression. Her photographs helped Americans in that perilous time to see each other in a new way.
The novel begins in 1918 when 23-year-old Lange arrives in San Francisco from the East Coast. Afflicted by polio as a child, Lange develops a deep sense of empathy toward others. She also learns to pay attention to what she sees around her. These traits serve her well as she cultivates her craft as a photographer and dreams of opening a portrait studio.
Her talent becomes well known, but financial backing for women is scarce. Indefatigable, she eventually strikes a deal with a businessman who loans her money. She opens her studio a block off Union Square and befriends a group of Bohemians that include other respected women photographers. These non-conforming writers, musicians and artists widen the lens of Lange’s evolving social consciousness.
Around her, diverse social forces compete for power in San Francisco. At the bottom of the social structure are Chinese Americans. Laws restrict where Chinese Americans can live and work. Lange employs a Chinese assistant in her studio. (This woman is known to history only as “Ah-yee” or “Chinese Mission Girl.”)
In the novel, Darznik envisions a business partnership and authentic friendship between Lange and her assistant, whom she names Caroline Lee. Lange sees firsthand the discrimination, bigotry and disregard Lee encounters. Few repercussions exist for police brutality, human trafficking or unjust labor practices toward Chinese Americans.
Another character is based on California Sen. John Phelan, whose 1920 campaign slogan was “Keep California white.” It is as if Lange is stunned by the photo developing in her darkroom. Soon she stops snapping pictures of the wealthy elite and starts taking pictures of ordinary people.
Though “The Bohemians” focuses on Lange’s formative years, the story does touch on Lange’s later contributions. In the early 1930s, with the Depression in full force, many Americans lack food, shelter and clothing. Lange and her artist husband Maynard Dixon decide to document the suffering they see. Lange takes a shot of a breadline in San Francisco she titles “White Angel Breadline.”
In her photos, she reveals the stories of her subjects. Lange says, “I had to make myself useful. Somehow, I had to get people to see.” Eventually, Lange’s images of unemployed fathers and weary migrant mothers appear in newspapers. People who had been hidden become visible to politicians and policymakers.
Although I would have liked to hear more about the decades after Lange’s pivot from the privileged to the poor, Darznik’s immersive story resonates strongly today. Her characters live through the Spanish Flu, anti-Asian hostility and xenophobic deportations. As we struggle with our own pandemic, Darznik illustrates painful patterns in history. By writing about a woman who helped the world see hardship and injustice, Darznik inspires people today to understand those whose backgrounds and ethnicity are different from their own.
Katherine Read blogs about books at readsreading.blogspot.com.
Written by: Jasmin Darznik
Published by: Penguin Random House
Note: Darznik appears in a virtual event presented by Book Passage at 4 p.m. April 17; visit bookpassage.com.