Posts tagged ‘History of Photography’

March 16, 2011

Social Change – Dare to Change the World, One Photo at a Time

by Carlo Levy

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”[1] Such inspirational words stir the soul and motivate individuals to stand up for a higher purpose and put their beliefs into action. Often times society as a whole is blinded by mass exposure to false perceptions of happiness and well being as presented by glitzy advertisements and loaded images. However, there were those few individuals from different professions who saw the social problems of the times and used their careers to effect real social change. In the early 1900s, photography was especially successful in exposing the truth, and Lewis Hine was especially successful in using this medium to educate society on its issues. By advocating his conception of the “photo story”, Hine challenged photographers to create visual narratives, marking a shift from contemporary art and avant-garde photography to an early form of documentary photography. By promoting this realism photography, Hine elevated the medium to one that not only embraced by exuded truth and social meaning, thus enabling the public to experience authenticity in imagery. By incorporating social significance to photography, Hine brought about real legislative change to correct social issues. Lewis Hine raised social awareness and effected social change by redefining photography as a revolutionary documentary tool for capturing truth and realism and unhiding all that was hidden.

“Photography can light-up darkness and expose ignorance.”[2] Hine ushered in a new direction for photography by creating the “photo story”, in which he dared his peers and his students to create a visual narrative comprised of images and text that were connected by an underlying theme rather than a linear progression.[3] During a time when Pictorialism and the Photo-Secessionist movements were competing head-to-head over the future of photography, Hine moved away from images that relied on abstract patterns, differential focus, and personal impressions and instead pushed towards images with “absolute unqualified objectivity” and “straight photographic means”, a philosophy that his student, Paul Strand, adopted.[4] Rather than creating single, isolated compositions, he argued that raw, unobscured photographs, when presented in a non-linear collection, radiated a stronger, more influential message to the public. After all, Hine acknowledged a trend in society in which people were increasing their capacity to study and appreciate multiple images.[5] Hine’s photo story significantly changed photography because it showed photographers that the world around them did not need to be “fuzzied” to bear significance. On the contrary, society needed to see the world for what it was, with all of its successes and failures, triumphs and defeats. He transformed photography into a medium that investigated and documented, raised questions and sparked conversation. By creating the photo story, Hine created documentary photography. By creating documentary photography, he transformed photographs from surreal abstractions to real testimonies.

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”[6] When he infused photography with a documentary-style philosophy, Hine added a whole new level of worth, meaning, and value to photography as the definitive tool to enable the public to participate in an authentic experience of the world in which they lived. Kate Sampsell-Willmann, a biographer of Hine, succeeds in defining his philosophy: “To document is to collect…to assert an honest perception of what had been collected in the artist’s mind. To document with a composed photograph is to do the same, but with an added element of authenticity that succeeds to convince through immediacy and exactitude.”[7] Hine used this quality “immediacy” and “exactitude” to empower photographs to capture the reality behind appearances.  The particular vision that he held was to capture those “things that had to be corrected”, namely social issues. His personal quest was to enlighten the public to the social ailments and injustices that were either unseen or ignored, and he used photography as his weapon, both as his personal tool and as a didactic instrument for his students and peers. In order to effect social change, he first had to show that which needed to be changed. Others with a similar passion for change chose the written word and speech in their attempt, but documentary photography, as molded by Hine, was perhaps the most effective and far-reaching. Hine’s social documentary photography did not require an elitist education or exclusive philosophy in order to comprehend his subject matter; rather, by capturing again what was right in front of the camera, he only required that the viewers simply look at the image and see for themselves. Because of Hine, photography became a “most effective tool in the arsenal of those who would search for ‘the authentic’ in America” because it provided a “seemingly direct, unmediated, or unprocessed experience to all those who chose to look”.[8] By unhiding the hidden truth, Hine was preparing the public for social change.

“There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”[9] Hine ushered in documentary photography and used this as a tool to reveal the truth. His final touch was to use photography as means to impassion the public to make social change. As a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Commission, he immediately saw that the welfare of children’s lives in the workplace was hazardous and harmful.[10] He also immediately knew that if he wanted the public to bring about social change to protect these children, he had to show them everything – how they lived, worked, played, and slept. What better method to accomplish this task than through his documentary photography? By taking images of children in their day-to-day lives, he succeeded in revealing a first-hand look at the atrocities that the children had to endure. As Figueredo writes:

One of the most devastating aspects of child labor was the health problems experienced by the children. They worked long hours, did not get enough exercise, and fatigue was common. As a result, their small bodies did not develop properly and their growth was stunted. It was even worse for those who worked in mills and mines–exposure to toxic materials caused lung disease. Then there were the children operating machinery that became victims of an accident and were maimed for life.[11]

In critically interpreting his photo stories of the child labor force, one will find it hard to deny that documentary photography truly revealed the hardships of these children more successfully than other comparative mediums. One can feel a pervasive emotion of sadness and sympathy, which in and of itself is a true testament to the success of Hine’s documentary photography in that a “direct, unmediated, or unprocessed” image can evoke emotion just as well as, if not better than, an image that is abstract or surreal. Hine observed correctly that “the best tools for social change were images least susceptible to attack as forgeries”.[12] As a result, he created his own vision for making honest images, and it was this honesty that paradoxically made his images emotionally and politically saturated. His photos of children in the workplace revealed the warm, living, and breathing souls of the children against a backdrop of cold, distant, and dead machinery and mortar. Author Judith Gutman praised Hine’s visual documentation. “Hine never tried hard for a single effect; he was usually not pictorially dramatic and many of his photographs appeared flat – not shocking enough for his contemporaries. The people in the photographs communicate directly to us as if they were still alive. They spill out of their historic reality to become part of our present. We see them and think we are about to know them”.[13] In his image entitled “Shrimp Pickers Children, 1911,”[14] Hine succeeds in showing, through documentary photography, this glaring contradiction. According to Sampsell-Willmann, “the children themselves are the admonition, saying, ‘How can you sit there and let me live this life,’ all the while remaining children and directing innocence and good humor toward a stranger who paid attention to them, which make sad surroundings so much more poignant”.[15] In another image entitled “Some Adolescents in Bibb. Mfg. Co., Macon, Ga., 1909,”[16] Sampsell-Willmann offers this critical interpretation:

The faces of these ‘girls’ speak volumes about what will happen to the little ones if allowed to grow up in the mills and canneries. Their childhood, stubbornly apparent in the eyes of the young ones, would be sapped, and they would be made old before their time. Despite the girlish smile (probably directed at the handsome photographer) of the young woman cropped on the extreme right, the horrors of child labor are obvious in this image, as was the then future of America if nothing had been done to intervene. Save the demure smile on Hine’s right (and even her hands are aged and worn), there is no redemption in this image, no promise for the future.[17]

Due to the success of Hine’s haunting and moving photographs, many states passed stricter laws that banned the employment of underage children. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Also known as the Federal Wage and Hour Law, this legislature set minimum wage, overtime pay, equal pay, record keeping and child labor standards for employers who are covered by the Act. In only three year’s time, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Act constitutional.[18] What more tangible proof can one desire to see that documentary photography, when used to seek social change, is successful?

Hine succeeded in effecting a lasting social change on the public, but he was more equally successful in effecting a lasting change on photographers by redefining their medium as visual journalism so that they too could follow suit and impact society. During the Great Depression, photographers of the Resettlement Administration used Hine as a model in gaining “an understanding of documentary that revolved around emotionally persuasive” depictions.[19] When a new form of social documentary emerged in the 1970’s, a new generation of photojournalists studied Hine and his documentary photography to again update and redefine photojournalism to fit current issues.[20] Even to this day, his spirit and philosophy has left a significant impact on photography.

“Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past.”[21] Lewis Hine did indeed accomplish his personal quest in raising social awareness and effecting social change by redefining photography as a revolutionary documentary tool for capturing truth and realism and unhiding all that was hidden. He was able to take a young medium that was still trying to find a legitimate identity and mold it into a verifiably genuine tool. Its wielders were able to open a window into a world where social issues that were once overlooked could be now seen by the public at large. Because the camera was able to capture images with “immediacy” and “exactitude”, a single photograph could transmit tiers of emotional and political truth with every detail. Because photographs were more or less universally accessible, anyone could view them if they chose to. Hine made it a point to encourage viewership so that social awareness could grow and blossom into social change. And he did so not by trying to distort the camera’s natural capability of taking images as-is. Rather, he embraced the camera for its instantaneousness and developed an identity of documentary journalism that not only succeeded in his era but also continues to succeed today. That being said, as the world population today sees images of the many social issues that exist, one cannot help but hear Hine’s challenge whispered to us, daring us to change the our world, one photo at a time.

[1] Chavez, Caesar. Address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Nov. 9, 1984. Speech.

[2] Hine.

[3] Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Prentice Hall, 2011. Textbook, p. 207.

[4] Marien, p. 197.

[5] Marien, p. 229.

[6] Hine.

[7] Sampsell-Willmann, Kate. Lewis Hine as Social Critic. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. Hardcover, p. 12.

[8] Sampsell-Willmann, p. 13.

[9] Hine.

[10] Lewis W. Hine: The Camera as a Tool for Social Reform. Center for Children & Technology, 2002. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <;

[11] Figueredo, Marilyn Esperante. The Exposure of Ignorance: Child Labor in America. Tampa Bay’s Cigar City Magazine, 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <;

[12] Sampsell-Willmann, p. 58.

[13] Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. London: Sandpiper, 1998. Hardcover.

[14] Child Labor In America: Investigative Photos of Lewis Hine. The History Place, 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <;

[15] Sampsell-Willmann, p. 92.

[16] National Child Labor Committee Collection. Library of Congress, 2008. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <;

[17] Sampsell-Willmann, p. 95.

[18] The Fair Labor Standards Act. United States Department of Labor, 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <;

[19] Marien, p. 280.

[20] Marien, p. 438.

[21] Child Labor in Virginia. Virginia Historical Society, 2002. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <;

March 3, 2011

Unhide the Hidden Truth

by Carlo Levy

Realism, considered one of the oldest theories in art, was championed by John Szarkowski, who argued that “the world exists independent of human attention, that it contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning, and that by discerning these patterns, and forming models or symbols of them with the materials of his art, the realist is joined to a larger intelligence”.[1] Essentially, Szarkowski believes that realists have the challenge of capturing an image with elements that exist naturally without manipulation – either in setting the shot or in post-production – to unhide a hidden truth that they feel needs to be seen.

Paul Strand is such a realist. He believed that a photographer must have “a real respect for the thing in front of him…the very essence…of absolute unqualified objectivity”.[2] In analyzing one of his famous photographs, Blind Woman, we see that Strand captures a real blind woman (who appears to be blind in her right eye) wearing a paper sign around her neck with the word “blind” written in bold capital letters.[3] Her gaze is off to her left, avoiding the camera’s line of sight. It is in this technique and composition that Strand captures the hidden truth – the average person is blind to things or people that are different. Going deeper, Strand argues that the average person in fact turns a blind eye towards these different people, in effect turning them into outcasts. The sign is a blatant attempt on the part of the woman to publicize her disability. This is effective is successful largely due to the fact that the average person has become conditioned to be drawn to signs with bold letters and high contrast, as commonly seen in advertising and print. She is advertising her disability. Yet in doing so, she is forcing her viewers to look straight on to what they are reticent to behold – a woman who has lost her sight, a woman who is different.

Strand did nothing to manipulate this subject as he photographed her, nor did he manipulate the image in its development. He captured what was in front him of him, thus capturing the “the very essence of absolute unqualified objectivity”.[4] Realism in photography can seem simple enough; after all, how hard is it to point a camera at a subject and shoot? The real difficulty lies in finding truth in what is in front of you. What is even more difficult is successfully conveying that truth through your photograph. Thus is the challenge of a good realist photographer – unhide the hidden truth.

[1] Szarkowski, John. Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960. Catalog of Exhibition Held Museum of Modern Art, July 26-October 2, 1978. New York: Little Brown & Co, 1978.

[2] Barrett, Terry. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. Textbook, p. 133.

[3] Strand, Paul. Blind Woman, New York, 1916. Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive, 1971.

[4] Barrett, p. 133.

March 2, 2011

Technology = Quality?

by Carlo Levy

Technology is a two-edged sword that attacks and defends the art of photography.

On the one hand, advances in technology enabled the once rare and virtually unattainable medium to be accessible by a growing number of people, expanding beyond the wealthy and entering the domain of the middle and lower classes. By accessibility, I mean that more and more of the common consumer were not only able to take and produce photographs but also purchase and enjoy them. Marien explains that two particular mediums ­– the stereograph and the carte-de-visite – exemplified this phenomenon. “Stereographs became immensely popular…with improvements in the technology of paper photography, and with the development of special cameras that used two lenses”.[1] Perhaps as a direct result of this, “photographers and publishers quickly sought ways of mass-producing and distributing photographs”.[2] As for the latter medium, “the cheapness of the carte-de-visite portrait, resulting from its efficient means of production, partly explains its rapid acceptance”.[3] Even the use of photography as a means of replicating existing works of art was made possible by technological improvements.[4] Again, this exposed more and more people to works of art that they otherwise may or may not have had the ability let alone privilege to view.

On the other hand, the overabundance of photographic products seemed to undermine photography as an art form, even if this subtle effect was not immediately noticed. Marien emphasizes this observation in the study of photographic replication of art. “The notion that photography could replicate art more accurately than other reproductive media arose because of the belief that photography itself was not an art – that is, not a medium open to imagination or subjective response”.[5] Of course, this then-popular notion would spark debate and reaction. Photographers such as Nadar, Jabez Hughes, and Elliott sought to reveal the truly artistic potential that was still growing in photography. By producing artistic photography through combination printing, many photographers were able to show that their medium was indeed “open to imagination [and] subjective response”.

Currently, I can see this two-sided nature of photographic technology in a widely used method of reproduction – publishing photos on social sites. It has become too easy to post photos, be it through the website or on your mobile device. Yes, simplifying the ability to publish photos online through a personalized format enables a large number of people to participate in photography. However, this allowance of quantity does not always reflect the quality of the photos. I believe, from my own observances, that the relationship of quantity and quality of photos through social sites is highly disproportionate. We must learn (or perhaps re-learn) how a photo can indeed be a work of art and not merely a profile snapshot.

[1] Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Prentice Hall, 2011, p. 80.

[2] Marien, p. 80.

[3] Marien, p. 83.

[4] Marien, p. 83.

[5] Marien, p. 84.

February 26, 2011

Ethically Evaluative Photographs

by Carlo Levy

Ethically evaluative photographs, as the name implies, are photographs that visually raise awareness upon and increase exposure of ethical and social issues. Ethically evaluative photographs are the basic foundation of photojournalism. Essentially a photojournalist seeks to disclose information, reveal truth, and explain current events through photographs. Barrett mentions Cornell Capa as a revered photojournalist who directed the International Center of Photography and empowered new photojournalists during a period when their category of products was declining in the market.[i] Among these new photojournalists was Sebastião Salgado.

Sebastião Salgado’s image entitled The Swollen Cities: São Paulo, Brazil is a prime example of an ethically evaluative photograph.[ii] The subject of the image is a large number of babies and toddlers playing on top of a roof in the city of São Paulo. The babies are abandoned, and the roof is on the Foundation for Child Welfare building. According to Barrett, an estimated 430 children reside in the FEBEM building, “35 percent of whom were found abandoned on city streets; the others were delivered to the center by parents no longer able to care for them”.[iii]

The image is almost surreal. One would not expect to see that many infants wandering alone atop the roof of a major metropolitan building in the heart of a large city. Salgado balances the towering multitude of skyscrapers in the background with a multitude of abandoned babies in the foreground. Whereas the buildings are tall, rigid, and lifeless, these babies are dynamic, small, fragile, and full of life. Perhaps this is the message that Salgado intended with this image. He wanted to explain the harsh reality of a social situation in São Paulo and other cities like it. He explained that these babies are not to be ignored because they were unseen. He exposed their visibility to viewers, stating that the social issue of child abandonment was as big as the buildings in the city. He successfully raised awareness to these hidden children.

[i] Barrett, Terry. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006, p. 72.

[ii] Salgado, Sebastião. The Swollen Cities: São Paulo, Brazil. Foundation for Child Welfare, São Paulo, Brazil. 1996.

[iii] Barrett, p. 73.

February 25, 2011

A Study on Early Photojournalism

by Carlo Levy

Felice Beato’s Interior of the Angle of North Fort at Taku on August 21, 1860[1] is the epitome of a conscientious essay of the death and destruction of war as accomplished by a methodology of reenactment. Far from being a spontaneous encapsulation of a fleeting moment in the midst of battle, Beato’s contrived and staged construction succeeds in not only defining but also revealing a truthful permanence in his meaning of war.

He depicts a specific instant in the Indian Mutiny in the later half of the 1800’s. The interior of the North Fort exposes a skirmish that had come to pass. The walls are dirty, grimy, and abused. Corpses are thrown about carelessly and are equally carelessly left unattended and unclaimed. Equipment and materials are littered across the canvas. There is an absence of what the original fort looked like. The deceased Chinese corpses show no signs of personality or singularity. Finally, there are no traces of the allies who defeated them.

Beato accompanied the Anglo-French troops in China in 1860. When the image was created, the allies’ campaign against the Chinese in Taku was long finished. It is believed that he reconstructed the aftermath of war in his photo essays; he, like many of his peers, would often take available corpses, or exhume them if none were present, and decorate the scene alongside broken architecture and locales.

The fact that the Interior of the Angle of North Fort was staged should not by any degree devalue Beato’s intention: he wanted to unmask what he viewed as the cruel and harsh reality of war that previously had never been seen or had been allowed to be seen by the public. The perspective that Beato presents the interior shows no sign of escape. The viewer is led into the fort through the incline of a muddied path in the lower right-hand corner. As our gaze pans left, we are immediately struck with two corpses of the defeated Chinese insurgents. Both are laid in a parallel manner; both, in torn guises, are looking upward at the sky, perhaps suggesting that in their final moments of life, they looked to their gods and asked for redemption in the next life. Progressing to the left, we are met with another corpse decorated with cannon balls, broken equipment, and a basket of inconclusive materials. Beato creatively arranges this still life of the corpse upon a makeshift altar, offering an emotion of appeasing the powers that be again for redemption and forgiveness.

He dissertates that war is unholy; that war and death is a creation by man and not by the divine. The fact that Beato excludes the victors of the battle empowers this view that while both sides of any war do so for what they believe to be a just cause, the end result is universal: people die. The fact that the corpses all look the same is no accident; Beato did so purposefully to show that in death, we are all the same: lifeless and abandoned. He offers nothing glorious in his image. How can one feel a sense of triumph after viewing the remains of a place where life once existed? If a viewer had no information as to the context of the subject, would he or she immediately conclude that good defeated evil, that the end justified the means? Is war just?

Beato successfully raises these questions and more in his careful reconstruction of the fort in Taku. Despite the fact, or perhaps because of the very fact, that he artistically engineered his composition illustrates this particular essence of war, mainly that the destruction and death of the aftermath outweighs the glory of victory and triumph. His viewers had no sense of what the reality of war entailed. Censorship by governments and press through limitation and a skewing of the truth presented a false perception back home. What Beato accomplished in his image was the closest to the exact opposite: he artistically created a composition of war using real events as his canvas and real dead as his medium. Through his scene of death, Beato captures an appreciation of life and divinity in that the viewer is encouraged to be grateful that they were not in such a perilous moment. Vicariously connecting the viewer to the atrocity of a distant battle he bridged the gap between different nations, races, and ideologies, bringing the composer and the viewer closer together to a higher truth, however dark or pervasive it may be.

[1] Beato, Felice. Interior of the Angle of North Fort at Taku on August 21, 1860. British, China, August 21-22, 1860. Albumen silver print. 9 5/8 x 11 13/16 in.

February 25, 2011

Take a Photo, Tell a Story

by Carlo Levy

Photographs are eternal. They span across time and space to reach millions of people, delivering an assortment of themes, messages, theories, and memories. Photographs stand the tests of time because of one magical truth – they tell the same stories but in different ways. Throughout the course of the history of photography, one cannot help but see a trend of photographs that are created either in the likeness of or inspired by works that preceded them. That is because history has a tendency of repeating itself, and wherever history creates moments, photographers are there to capture and share those moments. Photographers are visual storytellers – they narrate similar tales in creatively different ways. Two photographers, Felice Beato and Rong Rong, are two such storytellers. In examining two of their works, Angle of North Taku Fort at which the French Entered[i] and No. 1 (1), Beijing from the series Wedding Gown[ii], one will find this truth in photography – photographers share the same stories but through their own unique voices. The differences in photographs reveal how truly similar they are.

Beato’s Angle of North Taku Fort at which the French Entered and Rong Rong’s No. 1 (1), Beijing from the series Wedding Gown both use as their setting a Chinese site that has been destroyed, abandoned, and forgotten. The subjects in the two images are corpses – war victims in the first and a dead bride in the latter. Both exude a feeling of abandonment, relinquishment, and desertion. Beato’s image depicts a fort where war was occurred, and in its aftermath, all that remains is death, destruction, and unanswered questions. Similarly, Rong Rong’s image reveals a village where something, possible war, has left it abandoned, relinquished, and deserted. All that remains is death, destruction, and unanswered questions. Both artists creatively placed the corpses so as to achieve such a dramatic effect. In fact, both images are creations in that they are not snapshots of a moment in time. Rather, they are reconstructed and contrived to tell a story. By doing so, two photographers are sharing a tale of death and demise.

Amidst the similarities between the two images, Beato and Rong Rong differ in their view on death, and this can be seen in the voice they use to tell their stories. Beato’s purpose in his image is to tell a story of death that is final and permanent. The battle that has occurred at the Taku Fort has left it literally in shambles. The corpses are purposefully lain about to decorate the setting of destruction and death. They lack any individualistic identity; they are but masses of a decaying matter. The viewer has no story about them except that they were Chinese soldiers. What is important is that they have no future. In their defeat, these soldiers have accomplished nothing. There is no hope for reconciliation or redemption because there is no one to mourn them. In fact, there is no sign of life at all. Beato made it a point to make absent the victors of battle and instead make the corpses the focus of his image. What is seen is what is received – death and finality.

Juxtaposing Beato’s image to that of Rong Rong, we see a markedly different interpretation of death. Again, the viewer is greeted with a scene of abandonment with the desolate Chinese village. Again, the viewer finds death with a corpse purposefully lain in the heart of the rubble. However, Rong Rong has incorporated an element that was absent in Beato’s – life. Next to the corpse one finds two standing figures, a bride and a nude man. The nude man is actually Rong Rong himself, so immediately one sees that the artist is involving himself directly in the story, whereas Beato was merely recanting his tale from a third-party perspective. The nude man stands by the bride as a couple normally would when receiving vows of marriage. They are making a commitment to start a new life together. Thus this image offers a complex narrative of death and life. Beato’s view of death was that of finality. Rong Rong contests that through death, there is life afterwards. Perhaps he is suggesting that life can be achieved only through death. The fact that his embodiment in the image is nude proposes that by dying, one regains his purity and essence. The viewer is not left with a feeling of abandonment because the bride, who can be argued to be the resurrected corpse, is the man’s companion. They are looking through the torn entrance of the village, ready to embark on their life beyond. Rong Rong offers hope and redemption, offering a promise of second chances and new life.

Beato and Rong Rong demonstrate the tenacity of photographers in telling similar stories by adding their own meanings through their own voices. Both offer a discussion of death, but both reveal their own views on it. Beato’s sense of finality and conclusiveness is overshadowed by Rong Rong’s sense of new life and eternality. Using similar methodologies of contrived materials and historic locations, these artists are able to present their own narration of death – one negative and one positive. But there is that one element, death, which unites the two images together, empowering viewers to raise their own questions of death and life. The differences in photographs reveal how truly similar they are. It is up to the viewer to make that connection. Thus is the magic of the story telling of photography.

[i] Beato, Felice. Angle of North Taku Fort at which the French Entered. British, Tianjin, China, August 21-22, 1860. Albumen silver print.

[ii] Rong Rong. No. 1 (1), Beijing from the series Wedding Gown. Chinese, 2000. Gelatin silver print with applied color.

February 25, 2011

Critical Interpretation of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”

by Carlo Levy

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is a black-and-white photograph displaying a mother and her three children – two toddlers, one a boy, the other a girl, and an infant.[1] The mother is in the center of the photograph and is the largest individual, taking up most of the image. The three children frame her with their bodies. The two toddlers clutch to either of her shoulders, burying their faces into her body and away from the camera. The infant gazes up at her. The mother herself looks off into the distance past the camera. The family appears impoverished – their clothes are old, dirty, and torn. The hairs of the mother and the two toddlers are unkempt and wild. Their skin appears soiled and stained. She wears no make-up so as to reveal deep wrinkles in her face. Instead she wears a look of worry and sadness.

For the original context of the photo, Lange wrote the following:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.[2]

Finally, for the external context, after Lange returned home from her assignment, she contacted the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. She exposed the suffering of the migrant families. After presenting two of her photographs, one of which included “Migrant Mother”, the editor alerted federal authorities and released a news article that showcased Lange’s photos. Consequently, the government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the families whom Lange photographed.[3]

Taking all of these contexts into account, I interpret this photograph to be ethically evaluative. Clearly Lange is not explaining nor describing something neutrally; rather she is using an image of a destitute family charged with her personal pursuit for social change. The fact that she used this photo to compel a newspaper editor into action dictates that the photo was but one of many photos that collectively called to light the plight of the migrant families in California.

In the end, something as seemingly simple and ordinary as a photograph can bring about the change that this world needs.

[1] Lange, Dorothea. Destitute peapickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-9058-C.

[2] Lange, Dorothea. “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960.

[3] Curtis, James. Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1989.