In the shadow of giants

Capturing a family tale on screen is always a complicated business, but particularly so when the subjects are the chroniclers…

Capturing a family tale on screen is always a complicated business, but particularly so when the subjects are the chroniclers of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange, and her artist husband Maynard Dixon

PHILIP LARKIN famously decreed that parents “f**k you up” and there’s a particular resonance when both are well-known artists. For writer Daniel Dixon, crawling out from under his parent’s shadow was not just an act of rebellion, but a grappling with his own sense of self. With her camera, Dorothea Lange was the inimitable chronicler of American life. Her husband Maynard Dixon’s bold paintings of deserts and reservations distinguished him as one of the great “Southwestern” artists. Both were consumed by their own artistic vision, which often overshadowed their parental priorities.

Child of Giants is a documentary about life with Dorothea Lange and Maynard Dixon but also an act of reclamation, of Daniel reasserting his own identity. It came about at the encouragement of Daniel’s daughter Leslie Dixon (a Hollywood screenwriter responsible for Mrs. Doubtfire, Overboard and recently, Limitless) and her film-maker husband Tom Ropelewski.

“Daniel was often asked to speak about his parents and frequently had to bite his tongue, but over the years he sneaked a little of his own story in about stealing his mother’s cameras to sell them, or how he became homeless and slept on the streets of Oakland,” says Ropelewski. “I realised there was another story here and I wanted to tell it from the point of view of these kids who had been abandoned by their artist parents at the peak of their careers.”


Dorothea Lange studied photography at Columbia but found her oeuvre when she began working for the Farm Security Administration. The work took her out on to the streets and plains of Depression-era America where she catalogued the lives of the impoverished. The images became iconic, particularly Migrant Mother, later immortalised as a US postage stamp and sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $1m (€749,967). Initially the photos were lauded as social history, but their artistic achievement was later recognised. “Dorothea felt the conflict of representing ordinary people in her photographs,” says Ropelewski. “Her friends would say: ‘That’s not art, why are you doing that?’ They didn’t think taking pictures of poor people was art.”

The power of her work was due to their haunting and unstaged quality. This, says Leslie Dixon, was due to Lange’s ability to gain the trust of her subjects. “She cast this benign spell and there was no whiff of upper-class condescension.”

In Child of Giants, Daniel’s exploration of life with his parents distills into a fascinating coming-of-age story. He resisted his parents’ artistry, dabbled in delinquency, but eventually found his vocation as an advertising writer. “My father was the original Don Draper,” says Leslie Dixon. “When I watch Mad Men, I see copies of ads that he wrote in the 1960s.”

In the 1950s, when Dorothea came to Ireland on assignment for Life magazine, mother and son reached a rapprochement. “She asked my father for help writing text for the photos. It was the beginning of their adult collaboration and they found a mutual respect for each other’s talent here in Ireland. She was comfortable here.”

Lange took more than 2,000 photos in Ireland (published in Dorothea Lange’s Ireland). Ropelewski believes Lange saw a common visual thread between 1950s Ireland and Depression-era US. Lange’s work was groundbreaking; Maynard’s art was well regarded, even if their attitude to parenthood was uncommitted.

“It’s not easy for a child to grow up with genius parents,” says Leslie Dixon. “There’s a mischief and sense of life to Child of Giants, but the emotions catch up with you.”

Child of Giants screens at Dublin’s Lighthouse on Friday, Viewfinders Film Festival, Co Clare, on April 1 and at Dingle Film Festival on April 3

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson is a writer, editor and Irish Times contributor specialising in the arts