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Tuesday, 04 December 2018


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Thank you very much for turning me, us, on to Sarah Meister, and through that video and connection to so many other riches. Now it's Migrant Mother again! Much gratitude for your public service.

Thanks for this tip. I will look forward to this book, but as a guy whose tombstone will probably say, “he was pretty good at a bunch of stuff” I really appreciate your comment about the value of mastering at least one thing.

“...the so-called "Migrant Mother," photography's Mona Lisa.”

Ha. I never heard anyone make that observation but it’s hard to argue against, at least at a popular level.

More power to Sarah's elbow!

But, as ever, world hype threatens to take things and devalue them by dint of too much praise.

Anyone remember "Afghan Girl" which was a portrait of a young person with eyes the wrong colour for our preconceptions of what Afghani eyes should be? It went on to make a photographer's name beyond the usual circle of people who are interested in photographers and their reputations. But what was so wonderful about it? Truthfully and photographically, very little.

And so, I fear, it goes with this migrant woman and her brood: if memory of articles read serves, there were several versions of this shot with the kids distributed in different weights and balances; in essence, then, nothing beyond a portrait gig with people who aren't going to be paying you.

So, why the implied gravitas? Just because of the national disaster then taking place, or the photography, or the photography because of the circumstances? Remove a photograph from context and it often shrinks into nothing better than anything Tom, Dick or Harry- certainly Dick - has done. Extend that to said Dick, and you wonder about the value of his American West adventure, too, especially when you compare that work with the vibrancy of some of his commercial work - especially the early fashion years.

Of the many different genres that attract photographers, portraiture may actually be the most challenging, not from the technical point of view, as the field is wide open from meticulous studio lighting to ambient, but from the more serious meaning and purpose of portraiture that isn't a passport snap, that insight into the sitter's being. Can it even be achieved?

[Right, and there's nothing special about a Mark Rothko painting--it's just two or three oblong rectangles of color.

Why would you want to remove a photograph from context? That's like taking your wife out of the context of her feelings for you. --Mike]

Is it just me who is cringing at the fact that the photo is severely cropped on the cover of the book? I don't think Dorothea Lange would approve?

[It's likely Sarah Meister wasn't even consulted, if I know book publishing. It's a "detail," meaning a partial view. At any rate, it should be considered just decoration, rather than "the photo," IMHO. --Mike]

Might I also suggest "Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing," https://www.amazon.com/Dorothea-Lange-Politics-Alona-Pardo/dp/379135776X/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1544026732&sr=1-3&keywords=Dorothea+Lange,
the catalogue for the Lange retro that ran at the Barbican over the summer? An excellent survey of her work.

What is it about that photo that strikes a chord with so many?

"[Right, and there's nothing special about a Mark Rothko painting--it's just two or three oblong rectangles of color.

Why would you want to remove a photograph from context? That's like taking your wife out of the context of her feelings for you. --Mike]"

I have no argument with you about that painting, though I don't think you want to be taken literally here; in fact, you could extend that to much of the art that is so collectible today. And to the photography, for that matter.

Which kind of makes the point for me: that image is taken out of both context and period when it's turned into the subject of a study over 48 pages. It's true context was of then, and the attempts to get financial backing to help out the farmers in real distress, which wasn't in any doubt. Official, do-good public relations photography, then.

So what's the function, today, of documentary photography of another era? Is it just "Lest we forget"?

Regarding your second point: my wife is already out of the picture, having lost to cancer ten years ago. Which does show the real value of photography: as a pro, family snaps almost never happened. Fortunately, I did shoot the pic for her International Driving Licence, and there are but two tiny prints left in this world: one in my wallet and another tucked into the corner of a framed shot of our two kids, which itself only exists because I had some frames left from a shoot and they were both around just before I went into the darkroom.

If my place went on fire, those would be the only things I'd risk my ass to rescue. Not a lot else matters much in the grander scheme of things, and without those pics it would be ever more difficult - if not impossible - to hang on to a real, precise memory of how she looked at one moment in time instead of just a vague, composite one of the woman through the years and the filters of love and memory.

If anyone doubts that about memory, just try to picture the people you were friends with in school when they were fifteen. If you are five or six decades beyond that today, it ain't so easy!


The Library of Congress archive contains digital scans all five of the negatives Dorothea Lange exposed of Florence Thompson and her kids. The LoC publishes a discussion of these images at https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html. That LOC page includes a links to scans of all the images, including a scan of the unretouched Migrant Mother negative.

I used to live in Modesto, California and learned the woman in the picture lived in my town. Here is the article from the Modesto Bee that discussed her life and the picture:


I think you can get to this article without being signed in (and subscribing) as I do. If you can't access it I can cut and paste at least the text.

There are two aspects to that photo, it seems to me, both discussed extensively. One is its socio-political context and meaning, and this photo is freighted with that burden in abundance. And the stories of how it was staged shade that relevance variously, and probably unhelpfully, and don’t add to its appreciation.

More important, it seems to me, is its value as a portrait—a picture of a person that reveals something more than what she looks like. The thing is, that something may not even exist. Nobody knows Mona Lisa’s political persuasion, and we only surmise her social situation. But people don’t line up at the Louvre because of that. They line up because her expression is enigmatic, the smile mysterious—something important held in reserve. It is compelling. But who knows whether Ms. Lisa was actually mysterious or enigmatic, or had anything important enough to reserve? It’s not about her, but about how Leonardo portrayed her.

The woman in Lange’s photo reflects inner conflict and concern. The context and the expression suggests large issues, but it really isn’t important. It shows a woman capable of reflection—something more than what she looks like. That’s what makes it striking. Even if she was showing only annoyance at something unimportant, the photo displays it.

McCurry’s photo of the Afghan woman is penetrating, and not just because of the eyes. People feel it, and that’s what makes it art worth considering as such.

I’m reminded of what happens when doctoral candidates write about works of music. They call it analysis, but usually it strips the music of what made it worth analyzing in the first place. Let’s hope Ms. Meister’s essay develops appreciation rather than diluting it.

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