Everyone had cameras, images do not lie, and neither do photographers …  right?

“Migrant Mother”: photograph by Dorothea Lange (1936), Library of Congress FSA/OWI Collection

A picture so famous that no one questioned what it represented — because it was the right time, right issue, right photographer.  It is truth so obvious that it needed no fact-checking from no less a historian than Gary Gerstle, the James G. Stahlman Professor of American History at Vanderbilt University.  From his book,  American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (2001):

The Depression era’s most celebrated photograph was Dorothea Lange’s searing 1936 portrait of the worn but proud, simple but virtuous “Migrant Mother” in transit from Oklahoma to California . . . .  No photographs of an eastern European immigrant, black, or working woman during the decade came close to evoking a similar kind of response to that elicited by the Migrant Mother.  She was universal American; she was a mother; she was also a Nordic.

I read this book as part of my graduate studies in history; we took it apart in seminar, it was on my reading list for the comps and orals, and hence a work I actually remember fairly well.  And then, this past weekend as I continued my reading of Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000 (2008), the author discussed how fifty years after the image, various scholars scrutinized the facts Dorothea Lange supplied for the picture:

Migrant Mother emerges as a complicated image that is both more and less than it seems. At the center of this new appreciation is a detailed reconstruction of the photographic sequence of Lange’s Nipomo assignment, beginning with the first ten minutes, when she failed to learn that the name of the woman in Migrant Mother was Florence Owens Thompson . . . [S]he did not follow her usual technique of banter, photography, and diligent note taking.  Had she done so, Lange might have discovered that Thompson was not one of the migrant workers at the camp . . . .  or that she was not a typical Dust Bowl refugee, of European ancestry . . . .  She might have learned that Thompson, while born in Oklahoma, was in fact a full-blooded Cherokee, displaced from her tribal lands.

Although to be more precise about it, Florence Thompson was Florence Owens at the time . . . .  But to continue:

For most of the rest of her life Thompson resented her portrait and the way her image had been appropriated to serve larger symbolic, emotional, and political purposes.  “That’s my picture hanging all over the world,” she told a Modesto Bee reporter in 1978, “and I can’t get a penny out of it.  What good is it doing me?”

When I finished my orals, my professors asked me what I wanted to do next or in the future — and I said, prosaically enough, that I wanted to learn something new each day.  I am not sure I will ever reach that goal, but I learned something new this weekend — and I also relearned something I should have remembered.  In my work I do not question photographs the same way I question texts; somehow, they seem more reliable, more real, than the written word. “The photographs clearly show,” I write, and I forget that these photographs have creators — creators who frame, crop, remove, and manipulate truth every single time they look through the view finder.  I thought I knew what I saw, as did a historian I much admire, as did the third eye of a legendary photographer.

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