The little meditation in part 1 leaves a lot unsaid and although I see this more as a mulling over of the issues of why we take pictures in a certain way and not another, there is also the important reality that viewers respond to some images more strongly and appreciatively than they do to others. It is one question to ask why Dorothea Lange composed the above photo in this way. The second question is why we respond to it with such admiration.
That’s the issue of the second essential component of communication. The first, the speaker, is in this case the photographer, the image maker. The second component is the hearer, or in this case the viewer, the reader of the photograph. I want to set off to the back for now the image itself, and look at the two components, speaker and hearer.
People say of some images, “what a beautiful photograph!” and we understand the compliment, especially when we also admire the image. When the subject matter is, however, poverty, pain, grief, destruction, mayhem or war, are we as comfortable in saying “My, what a beautiful photograph”? Lange’s Migrant Mother is of the woman at a bad point in her life. The clothing of her and the children s worn, dirty looking and one gets that the children are not just being shy, but hiding from their own deprivation and shame before the camera.
Colin’s image of the two cousins, suffering from the effect of tear gas is also an image of pain and suffering. Lange’s photograph has nice tonality, focused well, soft lighting, good composition. Mulvany’s photograph of the girls is likewise well done. So do we comfortably say, “what beautiful pictures”?
In part 1, I tried to discern the photographer’s approach to the subject and the choices made in the tripping of the shutter. I suggested that we all operate with mental templates that help us to work quickly, sometimes almost automatically as we respond to a subject and “capture” it. I noted the enduring image of mother and child, which exists as a human cultural icon which we might suspect played a role in the making of these two images. All of these guides work in the background for the photographer most of the time. They lay behind the other technical issues of focus and exposure and remembering to pull the darkslide. The picture is made. The photographer has spoken.
In this moment of communication, we the readers of the photographs perform our role, and both the appreciation of the “beauty” of the image, and any feelings of discomfort are what we bring to the moment. If the photograph is in a sense, the sentence spoken by the photographer, then the photographer’s part in the communication is limited to this word spoken, and rather than an ongoing conversation, we have a form more like a published poem, there for many readers to appreciate and respond to, and possibly for many generations of readers to come. The original speaker, on the other hand, is done with it.
Here we return to the photograph itself, which in place of the photographer becomes the initiator of many conversations. Now many will recognize Migrant Mother as a great photograph because it has become an ICON, significant historically as well as culturally. And many of those will appreciate it for that reason, its fame, its celebrity! Especially in a culture that has so much appreciation for fame and celebrity that is a natural response. For those in the know about the history of American photography, Lange herself is a celebrity. Migrant Mother was widely disseminated in its day, and not accidentally. For such public distribution was the reason for the hiring of the F.S.A. photographers. It had a social and a political purpose. Is it possible then, after such a history for a reader to appreciate Migrant Mother in a more neutral, non-storied way? Or do we find ourselves forced to recognize the famous picture, noting the socio-historical context and then also say, “It’s a beautiful image?”
I was sitting on a bench in the Art Institute of Chicago and on the wall above me was Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles. A girl came by to admire it and looked at me and said, “Wow, he must have been really crazy to do this. It’s so crazy!” I thought, as she walked away that Vincent didn’t make such a beautiful image because he was crazy, but in spite of his mental turmoils. She was reacting to what she knew of his story and less to what he created, the image on the wall. The painting is an image of calm and peace rendered in precisely thought out color relations and carefully constructed composition.
If we are able to admire Migrant Mother as image, seeing past its iconic state, and see it is a beautiful image, with all the dirt on the children and the shabbiness of their dress, with the obvious discomfort of the people photographed then our understanding of beauty is much more that what we might mean to say, “That is a pretty picture.” Like the photographer then our understanding of beauty is informed by more than the fall of light on the subjects. Precisely because it is of human subjects our sense of the beauty in the image is informed by the depth of our own human experience and our ability to embrace the fundamental truths of human experience, that there are times of joy and sorrow, trouble and peace and so on.
Returning to my initial point about the mother and child image as a cultural icon, for both photos above, I would suggest that the cultural values of caring for and compassion towards the weaker, smaller, younger, were sub-conscious elements in the taking of the photographs, and in the second part of the communication, for the readers of the photographs. Even without the caption that identified the two girls in Colin Mulvaney’s image, distinct from and apart from the social, historical context, we respond to the expression of those values. The photograph thus attains its power as a communication of values. That makes it not pretty, but beautiful.
Keep on photographing.
June 7, 2020