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When Images "Lie": Thinking Historically with Dorothea Lange

When Images "Lie": Thinking Historically with Dorothea Lange

Written by Danielle Nicole DeVoss
March 09, 2011

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

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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