Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field

(University of Chicago Press, 2008)

2009 John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize

2009 Great Places Book Award

2009 Honorable Mention, PROSE Award

Near the end of her career, Dorothea Lange lamented, “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually. I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves.” Lange, however, did look, unflinchingly turning her lens on the despair, degradation, and greed unleashed by the Great Depression, and her photographs for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration have become defining images of that time, capturing a country and a people on the brink of cataclysmic change.

But her iconic images don’t come close to telling the whole story. Lange viewed her photographs as part of sequenced narratives, enriched by her descriptive captions – without which, she wrote, “half the value of fieldwork is lost.” Daring to Look presents never-before-published photos and captions from Lange’s fieldwork in California, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest during 1939. Lange’s images of squatter camps, beleaguered farmers, and stark landscapes are stunning, and her captions – which range from simple explanations of settings to historical notes and biographical sketches – add unexpected depth, bringing her subjects and their struggles unforgettably to life. Lange’s words and photographs speak powerfully to the present, for the dynamics she saw and recorded are still shaping American lives and landscapes.

Daring to Look began with a simple idea: to bring together a selection of Lange’s photographs and her reports from the field. A brief introduction would sketch the context of Lange’s life and work, an epilogue would bring the story back to the present. Not so simple, as it turned out. The book expanded into a more complex work whose shape emerged from the material. First, there were Lange’s reports from the field. I had encountered one in 1969 in the appendix to Dorothea Lange Looks at the American Country Woman. Despite the fact that Lange’s text was titled “Typical Field Documentation,” I found no further reports until thirty years later when I decided to try and find them. Why had they not been published before? Why did Lange begin to write long field reports in 1939? How was that year significant? The search for answers produced further mysteries. Why was Lange fired at the end of 1939? Then there were the people and places Lange described. What had happened to them? Did the government programs that Lange portrayed succeed? Each step exposed a story, and one story led to another.

Nearly forty years ago, Lange’s work revealed the synergy in what had seemed, in my own life, to be conflicting interests – the study of art and the making of art, the observing and portraying of the world and acting to change it. In Lange I found an ethnographer’s eye, a writer’s ear, an artist’s vision. In Lange, the word and the image, the documentary and the work of art, are one. She inspired me to integrate my own passions rather than to elect one and exclude others, and I moved from art history to landscape architecture, a profession that gave scope to history, ecology, and anthropology, to design, planning, and photography, and to practice as well as scholarship. In the years since, I have come back again and again to Lange’s American Country Woman and to her 1939 work An American Exodus, written with Paul Taylor, as models for how to capture in photographs and extend in words the meanings of visual images, with the camera an instrument of discovery.

To Dorothea Lange, I owe a great intellectual and artistic debt. My decision to produce a book of her unpublished texts stemmed from a desire to repay that debt, but my debt to her is far greater now than before. Lange once said, speaking for the Farm Security Administration’s photographers, that “the government gave us a magnificent education.” Dorothea Lange’s photographs and words, the places they led and the people I met there, gave me a magnificent education.

See Press for reviews.


The Language of Landscape

(Yale University Press, 1998)

I believe that the language of landscape is our native language. Landscape was the original dwelling; humans evolved among plants and animals, under the sky, upon the earth, near water. Everyone, in every culture, carries that legacy in body and mind. Humans touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, lived in, and shaped landscapes before the species had words to describe all that it did. Landscapes were the first human texts, read before the invention of other signs and symbols. Clouds, wind, and sun were recognized as clues to weather; ripples and eddies were read as signs of rocks and life under water, caves and ledges as promise of shelter, trees as guides to food and water.

To read and shape landscape is to learn and teach: to know the world, to express ideas, to influence others. Through it humans share experience with future generations, just as ancestors inscribed their values and beliefs in the landscapes they left as a legacy, a rich lode of literature: natural and cultural histories, landscapes of purpose, poetry, power, and prayer. Landscape is pragmatic, poetic, rhetorical, polemical. It is language.

The meanings landscapes hold are not just metaphorical and metaphysical, but real, their messages practical; understanding may spell survival or extinction. Losing, or failing to hear and read, the language of landscape threatens body and spirit, for the pragmatic and the imaginative aspects of landscape language have always coexisted. Relearning the language that holds life in place is an urgent task. This book is dedicated to its recovery and renewal.

See Press for reviews.


The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design

(New York: Basic Books, 1984). Translated into Japanese and Portuguese.

1984 President's Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects

2009 Named one of the past century's "100 Essential Books of Planning," American Planning Association

Nature in the city is far more than trees and gardens. It is the air we breathe, the earth we stand on, the water we drink and excrete, and the organisms with which we share our habitat. Nature in the city is the powerful force that can shake the earth and cause it to slide, heave, or crumple. It is rain and the rushing sound of underground rivers buried in sewers. Nature in the city is an evening breeze, a corkscrew eddy swirling down the face of a building, the sun, and the sky. Nature in the city is the product of a complex interplay between human purpose and the natural processes that govern the transfer of energy, the movement of air, the erosion of the earth, and the hydrologic cycle. The city is part of nature.

This is a book about nature in cities and what the city could be like if designed in concert with natural processes, rather than in ignorance of them or in outright opposition. It presents and applies knowledge from many disciplines to show how cities are part of nature and to demonstrate how they can be planned and designed in concert with natural processes. The book describes comprehensive strategies for sweeping change most readily implemented in rapidly growing cities, as well as incremental solutions more appropriate to the gradual redesign of existing urban cores.

See Press for reviews.


C. Th. Sørensen: Landscape Modernist,

by Sven-Ingvar Andersson and Steen Høyer with an introduction and translation by Anne Whiston Spirn

(Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag, 2001)

Carl Theodore Sørensen is one of the great landscape architects of the twentieth century. His work is at once monumental and modest, artful and humane, refined and original, serious and playful, restrained yet free. Many years after his death in 1979, Sørensen’s work is still fresh. The same man who defined his work as garden art was also the inventor of the adventure playground; Sørensen’s ability to fuse art, function, and tradition belie the polarizations that often plague the design professions. Therein lies Sørensen’s greatness and his significance.