Lately, I've been checking out a lot of photography books and photographer memoirs/biographies from the library: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, The Family of Man, and of course, work by Mary Ellen Mark and Sally Mann. I started out with Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits because I was interested in learning more about Lange and the "golden age" of documentary photography. The art form (like many) has lost most of its more lucrative sources of funding over the last 20 years with the collapse of human-interest pieces in places such as LIFE magazine and the rise of celebrity-focused stories and photography. 80 years ago, Dorothea Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration to travel the country and take pictures of living conditions during the Great Depression (though her salary was by no means big). Now, documentary photography is rarely financially supported outside of the academy, a few coveted fellowships and grants, and the art museum, though the medium does persist: Where Syrian Children Sleep, Project 562: Portraits of Native Americans.
Even knowing the depressing state of funding for the arts today, there's so much inspiration to be gained from reading about Dorothea Lange's start as a photographer (how she boldly fled from home only to get stranded out in California) or Mary Ellen Mark's four month stint in Bombay photographing and getting to know the prostitutes working on Falkland Road. In Sally Mann's book Hold Still: A Memoir in Photographs (which I definitely recommend), she discusses her own journey as an artist—from inheriting her family's farmhouse in Lexington, VA where she took the controversial nudes of her family, to traveling the south to take portraits of haunted landscapes, to photographing decaying bodies at the University of Tennessee's Body Farm.
Even though I consider myself, first and foremost, a writer, the stories of these photographers really speak to me. Sally Mann, Dorothea Lange, and Mary Ellen Mark all come across as strong and fearless women. To me, their lives seem almost magical, ones dedicated to capturing some higher truth or beauty while also confronting the sacrifices inherent in dedicating oneself so completely to art.