March 8, 2011
To the intervening variables, whatever they might be, that brought the film and the two museum-gallery art exhibits into such close space-time proximity, I can only offer my deepest appreciation.
Although the three works served to embellish each other, fitting together like tongue-in-groove woodwork as it were, their coming together formed a perfect storm. The film, a screening of Tom Ropelewski’s "Child of Giants" at the Salt Lake City Main Library, served impeccably as the opening act to a couple of adjacent-gallery BYU Museum of Art shows down in Provo.
For us pilgrims who have spent many years immersed in the interwoven lives of Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Charis Wilson, Everett Ruess, and other avatars of the western ethic, events such as these provide necessary nourishment. Without them, we figuratively starve.
So when word came down the grapevine concerning, first, the film, it was a no-brainer. Following the trials and tribulations of Daniel Dixon, who grew up as the eldest child of painter Maynard Dixon and photographer Dorothea Lange, "Child of Giants" focuses not only on the "genius" of the two as artists but also on their less-than-iconic parenting skills.
Chronicling the bohemian lifestyles of the aesthetically-modernist couple, the film’s narrative thread, contributed mainly by Daniel but with sporadic input from younger brother John and others, provides primary-source insight into the family life, and lack thereof, that shaped them all — especially the children, who were often shipped off to foster-care environments while their artist-parents struggled to pursue careers during the Great Depression.
Daniel didn’t take well to these shuffling home fronts and rebelled, even choosing, once Lange left Dixon for Berkeley economist and fellow photographer Paul Schuster, to live on the street. They would later discover their best relationship to be as friends and business colleagues rather than mother and son.
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An example of this would be a trip Dorothea took to southern Utah in the late summer of 1953 where she hooked up with longtime friend Ansel Adams to shoot a photo-essay of Toquerville, Gunlock, and St. George for LIFE magazine. The resultant spread, featuring thirty-five images (culled from the 135 that they shot) with text by Daniel Dixon, appeared in the September 6, 1954, issue of LIFE under the title "Three Mormon Towns."
And that brings us to the first of the two exhibits currently at the BYU Museum of Art, one scheduled to run through April 30 and entitled "Dorothea Lange’s Three Mormon Towns." Featuring 62 vintage prints and excerpts from Daniel Dixon’s original text, the exhibition is nothing less than a high-art visual time capsule into the post-war life of these three quite unique-to-each-other southern Utah then-rural communities.
Lange first became smitten with southwestern Utah when, 20 years earlier during the summer of 1933, she and then-husband Maynard Dixon camped out in Zion National Park while working their respective sides of the aesthetic street he painted while she photographed.
And although she attempted to return often throughout the years, something always seemed to get in the way. So when the opportunity arose for the LIFE shoot, she wasted little time putting the pieces in place.
With Ansel Adams and her son Daniel on board, she selected Gunlock for its near-isolation from outside influences, Toquerville as a town evolving through population exodus, and St. George as a burgeoning commercial center around which the photographic-essay would play.
The other exhibition at BYU MOA that relates to the Dixon-Lange relationship is entitled "Wide-Open Spaces: Capturing the Grandeur of the American Southwest." Featuring a wide assortment of some of Maynard Dixon’s most iconic original works, this quite breathtaking exhibit, which has been on view since mid-September, is scheduled to close tomorrow, Thursday, March 10.
Dixon’s modernist interpretation of the southwestern landscape, more so than any other’s save possibly Georgia O’Keefe’s, is the hook that keeps me coming back for more. It’s both confrontational and stunning, with a spiritual component that has few, if any, equals. This exhibit, along with Dorothea Lange’s and the documentary film about their family years, has proven to be a quite satisfying moveable feast, even for the culture-gluttons in our midst.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.