Every Picture Tells A Story… But Whose?

The FSA photographs of the Great Depression

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Photography of Florence Owens Thompson, known as “Migrant Mother” (detail), Pea-Pickers Camp, Nipomo, California. Source Wikimedia Commons

There are few social-documentary photographs more well known, nor more heavily plundered for significance, than those of rural America from the era of the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is perhaps the most famous. Other images include shots of sharecroppers, cotton pickers and economic refugees from the deep-south. As images, they have become part of a sort of American folklore, a complex heritage that over the decades since has engaged sociologists, art historians and critical theorists in broad scope.

Lange and her colleagues won great praise for their photographs of migrant workers. Photographer Edward Steichen described them as “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.”

To take a moment to look more closely at the photo Migrant Mother, the first thing to notice is that it’s all-immersive, by which I mean that the subject fills the frame and any sense of context or place is omitted. We may discern something of the woman herself, through her clothing and her children, but what lies beyond the frame is completely inaccessible to the viewer.

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Photography of Florence Owens Thompson, known as “Migrant Mother”, Pea-Pickers Camp, Nipomo, California. Source Wikimedia Commons

The woman’s expression emerges as the most potent element. Two of her children press their faces to her shoulders, a third sleeps in her arms. The composition creates a tight circle of visual interest around the pivot of her shoulders and the arc of her mouth. The vertical length of her arm provides a central column and stabilizes the picture. More crucially, the woman’s pensive expression — the creased brow, the long gaze, the position of her hand on her lower cheek — establishes a body language of deep concern. The energy of picture orbits around an unknown yet recognizable human anxiety.

She is particular, and yet universal. If she is in a state of reminiscence, then whatever she is recollecting appears to have a bearing on the future too.

The viewer’s empathy is easily offered to the woman, in large part because we know nothing about her. We are not being asked to judge — since we have nothing on which to base any judgment — but to sympathize, perhaps even commiserate.

It matters that the image is of a woman with her children. It matters that the children hide their faces but the mother gazes outwards. The way her right hand pinches at her cheek, that matters too. As a photograph, I would like to say that it’s beautiful, but it may be problematic to do so. Why?

Since it was taken, Migrant Mother has come to be seen as an exemplar of the voyeuristic or discriminating ‘gaze’. Such a reading exposes the objectification — even commodification — of the farmers and their families as marginalised, doomed and helpless.

Migrant Mother was taken by the photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936, on a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo Mesa, California. The woman depicted is named Florence Owens Thompson. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the how the image was taken:

“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.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

The problem that we, as viewers, have to deal with is this question of equality. Lange says “There was a sort of equality about it,” but many commentators think otherwise.

The wider context of the image was the Great Depression (1929–1939), one of the most severe economic shocks to hit the modern global economy. It began with the stock market crash of 1929, and in the United States, was made worse by the so-called Dust Bowl of the 1930s, where the Southern Plains region suffered dust storms and extended periods of drought. Circumstances brought families to the edge of destitution and forced rural communities on a migration route to California.

‘The New Deal’ was one of President Roosevelt’s efforts to end the Great Depression. It was a series of programs and public projects that attempted to mitigate the effects of the downturn.

The rural U.S. was a high priority for Roosevelt. During the mid-1930s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) begun a “rural rehabilitation” program to improve the lifestyle of very poor landowning farmers, resettling them in group farms on land more suitable for efficient farming.

The FSA hired photographers to document the work. In the 1930s, the original selection of images were widely disseminated across the US through traveling exhibitions and in picture magazines such as Life and Look. The core group of photographers, of which Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are the most celebrated, also included Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and John Collier.

According to James C. Curtis, “Lange thought of herself as a clinical observer committed to a direct, unmanipulated recording of contemporary events.”

Yet others have described the FSA images and such documentary photography as voyeuristic and exploitative. In 1992, Paula Rabinowitz, Professor of English, American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Minnesota, in her paper Voyeurism and Social Consciousness described Depression-era reportage in the following light:

“Voyeurism and its attendant sadism is at the heart of the documentary narrative that depends on the powers of the gaze to construct meanings for the writer and the reader of “the people”. […] No matter what its political intentions, the documentary narrative invariably returns to the middle class, enlisting the reader in a process of self-recognition.”

What Rabinowitz is saying has a direct bearing on the interpretation of the image as I put it earlier: “The energy of picture orbits around an unknown yet recognizable human anxiety. She is particular, and yet universal.”

What Rabinowitz might claim is that my own reading is idiosyncratic and voyeuristic, determined to return the image back to my own twenty-first century, sentimental, middle-class reading. “The powers and pleasures of looking,” is how Rabinowitz describes the inequality at play here.

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One of the six other photographs taken of Florence Owens Thompson by Dorothea Lange. Source Wikimedia Commons

In this light, looking again at the images that Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson and her family, one can see how orchestrated they are: how their success is based on emphasizing the motifs of grubby clothing, stark wooden cabins, far-away look in the eyes and frightened children.

Florence Owens Thompson later contested the account of how the photograph was taken, and was quoted as saying “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

Who owns these images is, arguably, not a question about property or copyright, but a question of who’s ‘gaze’ this is. To ask the question becomes an examination of how the privileged and the prevailing choose to see the world. As such, it is connected with the construction of gender and class difference and, more generally, with the representation of marginalized and oppressed people. To explore the gaze is to expose the objectification of those for whom autobiography is not possible.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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