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Published
Mar 09 2011

When Images "Lie": Thinking Historically with Dorothea Lange

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Long before Photoshop and other image-editing tools, artists, photographers, and composers were manipulating images. We still live in a culture and world where we want to assume that cameras provide us with an "objective truth."

Take, for instance, Dorothea Lange's famous, iconic photograph: "Migrant Mother" is a symbol of Dust Bowl depression and family strength in the face of incredible adversity. However, if we pan back a bit and look at all of Lange's photos from that particular shoot and if we question the way Lange and her crew staged the photo, there's some added detail to attend to.

For instance, both of the other children were laughing and playing. Lange posed the children with their heads behind their mother's shoulder to cover their gleeful faces and create a more somber photo. The mother's hand was deliberately posed to create an air of concern and pondering.

So these are some examples of the photo shoot staging. Benjamin Pfeiffer, a photographer and blogger, has posted his analysis of the original photo, and has argued that a "mystery thumb" was edited out of the picture in the darkroom during production (see http://www.1adventure.com/archives/000203.html).

Does this knowledge change our experience of the photo? Its circulation in our culture? The responses we and others have to it and the cultural memory it shapes of Dust Bowl America? These are interesting questions to bring to the classroom.

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Comments
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<p>The behind-the-scenes understanding of how Lange&nbsp;(may or not have)&nbsp;manipulated the people and the image is interesting and relevant.<br /><br />But I believe our students need to go even deeper: Many who see "Migrant Mother" have no idea who the subject of the photo is; nor do they know what resulted from the publication of the image and the story of&nbsp;Frances Thompson and her children.&nbsp; To me, it is the CONTEXT that's really relevant--that one powerful photo (and accompanying story) caused people to act.&nbsp; How many other photos in history can be put in this category?&nbsp; (Perhaps the famous Iwo Jima image, splashed on newspapers across the US).<br /><br />Frank Baker, <a href="http://www.frankwbaker.com">Media Literacy Clearinghouse</a></p>
<p>This article reminds me how much I have hardly scratched the surface of reading images with students. Sometimes I want to yell SLOW DOWN WORLD. I'm particularly concerned about the way the media has so intentionally manipulated the images it presents as news. I have always understood this photo as total truth. I'm a fan of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and I frequently see his humor about the media as some of the most spot on analysis of manipulative communication. I'd love to hear from others about how they have used his stuff in their classrooms.&nbsp;</p>