Review: The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik

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In 1918, Dorothea Lange leaves the East Coast for California, where a disaster kick-starts a new life. Her friendship with Caroline Lee, a vivacious, straight-talking woman with a complicated past, gives her entrée into Monkey Block, an artists’ colony and the bohemian heart of San Francisco. Dazzled by Caroline and her friends, Dorothea is catapulted into a heady new world of freedom, art, and politics. She also finds herself unexpectedly–and unwisely–falling in love with Maynard Dixon, a brilliant but troubled painter. Dorothea and Caroline eventually create a flourishing portrait studio, but a devastating betrayal pushes their friendship to the breaking point and alters the course of their lives.

The Bohemians captures San Francisco in the glittering and gritty 1920s, with cameos from such legendary figures as Mabel Dodge, Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, and DH Lawrence . At the same time, it is eerily resonant with contemporary themes, as anti-immigration sentiment, corrupt politicians, and the Spanish flu bring tumult to the city–and as the gift of friendship and the possibility of self-invention persist against the ferocious pull of history.

Source: NetGalley, Ballantine Books, and Purchase Rating: 2½/5 stars

The Bottom Line: I have been an Art Historian for the better part of two decades and while I often enjoy historical fiction related to art and artist, from time to time, I come across a read that just doesn’t sit well for or with me.  Unfortunately, The Bohemians is one such book.  Dorothea Lange is, without doubt, one of the most celebrated photographers in American history, but much of her history is largely ignored in this book and I found that very difficult to reconcile.  For example, throughout this book the long hours Lange spent in the darkroom are repeatedly mentioned yet nothing is mentioned about her, at best, rudimentary darkroom abilities.  In fact, unless she simply could not afford it, Lange often paid other photographers – including Ansel Adams – to complete her darkroom work for her.  Lange’s genius lay behind the camera where she most certainly sought to convey the humanity and character of her subjects; for her hired hands, she left detailed instructions about the effect she wanted in the final print.  Furthermore, Lange was also known to spend time with her subjects and talk with them if at all possible.  Lange often used the words of her subjects as the captions for her photos and openly criticized other well-known photographers (Margaret Bourke-White) for not doing something similar in their own work.  Though this was touched on in this read, it wasn’t emphasized to the extent it really needed to be. While I certainly appreciate what the author is trying to convey with this book, the license taken is just a bit too much for someone such as myself who has spent two decades studying the likes of Dorothea Lange.  The things left out of this book are just as critical to understanding Lange’s later development as an artist as what is mentioned.  In the end, this book just isn’t a good representation of a woman who becomes an icon of early photography.

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