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kottke.org posts about Dorothea Lange

The Making of an Iconic Photograph: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

At the end of a long day in March 1936, Dorothea Lange stopped in a migrant workers camp in California for just 10 minutes and took six photos of a woman and her children. The final photo, known as Migrant Mother, became one of the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression.

Migrant Mother

In this video, Evan Puschak details not only the context the photo was created under (FDR’s administration wanted photos that would shift public support towards providing government aid) but also how Lange stage-managed the scene to get the shot she wanted.

As Puschak notes, the photo we are all familiar with was retouched three years after its initial publication to remove what Lange saw as a detriment to the balance of the scene: the thumb of the woman’s hand holding the tent post in the lower right-hand corner.

It is easy to tell whether a print of “Migrant Mother” was made before 1939, because that year Ms. Lange had an assistant retouch the negative and remove Ms. Thompson’s thumb from the bottom right corner, much to the chagrin of Roy Stryker, her boss at the Farm Security Administration. While that was a fairly common practice at the time, Mr. Stryker thought it compromised the authenticity not just of the photo but also of his whole F.S.A. documentary project, Ms. Meister said. But Ms. Lange considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she apparently didn’t have a second thought about removing it.

Here’s what it looked like before the alteration:

Migrant Mother Unretouched

There are some other things about the photo that may prompt us to think about the objectivity of documentary photography. The cultural story of Migrant Mother is that this is a white woman who came west during the Great Depression for migrant work. The real story is more complicated. The woman was identified in the late 1970s as Florence Owens Thompson, and as she told her story, we learned some things that Lange didn’t have time to discover during her fleeting time at the camp:

1. Thompson was a full-blooded Cherokee born in Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma). As this NY Times review of Sarah Meister’s book on the photograph says, if people had known the woman wasn’t white, the photo may not have had the impact it did.

“We have never been a race-blind country, frankly,” Ms. Meister said. “I wish that I could say that the response would have been the same if everyone had been aware that she was Cherokee, but I don’t think that you can.”

2. The family were not recent migrants to California and had actually moved from Oklahoma in 1926, well before the Depression started. The family briefly moved back to Oklahoma because Thompson was pregnant and afraid the father’s family would take the baby from her, but returned to California in 1934.

3. Thompson’s first husband died in 1931 of tuberculosis while she was pregnant with her sixth child. A seventh child resulted from a brief relationship with the father mentioned above. An eighth child followed by a new husband in 1935. But it was Thompson who provided for the family while taking care of 8 kids:

By all accounts, Jim Hill was a nice guy from a respectable family who never could seem to get his act together. “I loved my dad dearly,” Norma Rydlewski said, “but he had little ambition. He was never was able to hold down a job.” The burden of supporting the family, and of keeping it together, fell on Florence.

4. The ultimate goal of Lange taking Thompson’s photo for the FSA was to stimulate public support for government aid to people who were out of work because of the Depression. But Thompson herself didn’t want any aid:

“Her biggest fear,” recalled son Troy Owens, “was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life.”

5. Thompson and her family weren’t actually living at the pea pickers camp when Lange photographed them there. They had just stopped temporarily to fix their car and were only there for a day or two.

In the field notes that she filed with her Nipomo photographs, Lange included the following description: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”

Owens scoffed at the description. “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell,” he told this writer. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

“Mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions, so what she [Lange] wrote she must have got from the older kids or other people in the camp,” speculates daughter Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo with her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder. “She also told mother the negatives would never be published — that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

So what are we to make of what we thought we knew about this photograph and what we know now? In 2009, Errol Morris wrote of the FSA photos:

Rothstein, Lange and Evans have been accused of posing their photographs, in short, of manipulating them to some end. And yet all photographs are posed. There is no such thing as pure documentary photography. The problem is not in what any of them have done, but in our misunderstanding of photography. No crimes were committed by the F.S.A. photographers. They labored as employees of an organization dedicated to providing propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. And they created some of the greatest photographs in American history. Photographs can be works of art, bearers of evidence, and a connection with the past for individuals, families and society as a whole. It should not be lost on any of us that these controversies are still with us. The Photoshop alteration of a photograph “documenting” the launching of Iranian missiles, the cropping of a Christmas get-together at the Cheney ranch. These are just the latest iterations. In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected in a contentious election. Photography played a controversial role, reminding us that wherever there are intense disagreements, particularly political disagreements, there will be disagreements about photography, as well.

The stories we tell about photographs change as we change and as our culture changes. Yes, Migrant Mother is a symbol of the hardship endured by many during the Great Depression. But Migrant Mother is also the portrait of a fiercely independent Native American single mother who fought to provide for her family and keep them together during the most difficult time in our nation. That’s a story worth hearing today.

Both prints above are courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: with thumb and without. You can also explore the rest of the LOC’s FSA collection.

Dorothea Lange’s photos of Japanese Americans’ imprisonment during WWII

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2016

Lange Japanese Internment

Lange Japanese Internment

In 1942, the US government hired Dorothea Lange (of Migrant Mother fame) to take photos of the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although Lange quit after a few months because government censors wouldn’t let her shoot images of barbed wire and the bayonets on guards’ guns, she took hundreds of photos documenting this shameful moment in American history.

Famous for her forlorn images of Dust Bowl America, this pioneering female photographer was hired by the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to document the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Although her skill at candid portraiture was unparalleled, “Lange was an odd choice, given her leftist politics and strong sympathy for victims of racial discrimination,” writes scholar Megan Asaka. The position was a challenging one for Lange as well. “Appalled by the forced exile, she confided to a Quaker protestor that she was guilt stricken to be working for a federal government that could treat its citizens so unjustly.”

The WRA initially gave Lange little instruction about where and what to shoot, but controlled and censored her while she was at work. When documenting life inside the assembly centers and concentration camps, she was prohibited from taking shots of barbed wire and bayonets. Unable to tolerate this censorship and her own conflicted feelings about the work, Lange quit after just a few months of employment with the WRA.

Less ashamed at what they’d done and more worried about PR backlash, the government embargoed Lange’s photos until 1972.

If this all makes you think of some recent comments about Muslims from a certain Republican presidential candidate, history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

Update: Ansel Adams also took dozens of photos of the Japanese American interment camp at Manzanar.

Adams Japanese Internment Camp

So did photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was among the prisoners at Manzanar.

Miyatake Japanese Internment

The exclusion order forced Miyatake, his wife and four children, to the concentration camp at Manzanar. He was able to store his photographic equipment but managed to smuggle a camera lens and film plate holder into the camp against government orders. Miyatake told his son Archie that he felt it was his duty to document camp life. An Issei carpenter in camp constructed a box to house the lens, and Miyatake was able to get film into camp by way of a hardware salesman and former client. The photographer eventually asked camp director Ralph Merritt if he could set up a photo studio, and Merritt, who learned about Miyatake from Edward Weston, consented with the provision that Miyatake only load and set the camera, and a Caucasian assistant snap the shutter. Eventually, that restriction was lifted, and Miyatake was designated official camp photographer, and granted the freedom to take photos of everyday life at Manzanar.

Miyatake and Adams met at the camp and began a collaboration. Lange and Adams were friends — he printed Migrant Mother for her — and she was instrumental in convincing Adams to document Manzanar. But she was also critical of his detached approach:

In 1961, Lange said about Adams’s taking landscape pictures at the Manzanar Relocation Center: “It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about these things.”

(thx, @gen and samuel)

Update: Anchor Editions made a page with dozens of Lange’s photos paired with quotes from contemporary sources about the camps.

Five iconic female photographers

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 18, 2016

Lomography has a list of the Top Five Iconic Female Photographers. I had never heard of Julia Margaret Cameron before — you can check out some of her fantastic work here — but Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Vivian Maier are all favorites of mine. Here’s a photograph from each:

Arbus Grenade

White Bread Line

Migrant Woman

Maier Reflection

Migrant Mother

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2007

While working for the FDR administration in 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange took the following photograph:

Migrant Woman

You’ve likely seen it before…it’s called Migrant Mother and it’s one of the more famous American photos. When she took the photo, Lange neglected to note the woman’s name (or other details) so her identity remained anonymous while the photo went on to become a symbol of the Great Depression. In the late 1970s, Florence Owens Thompson revealed herself to be the woman in the photo after she wrote a letter to her local paper saying that she didn’t like the image. In an AP story about the ensuing flap, Thompson stated:

I wish she hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

In addition to not taking her subject’s name, Lange got something else wrong. Thompson and her family weren’t typical Depression migrants at all; they’d been living in California for almost 10 years. Like all photographs, Migrant Mother is neither truth nor fiction but somewhere in-between.