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Walking with Florence


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Walking with Florence

  1. 1. Visual and Material Cultures Object Biography Assessment - The Trail of Thompson Catriona Black MA Contemporary Art Theory __________________________________ Object Biography…………Page 02 – 12 List of Illustrations………..Page 13 – 15 Bibliography………………Page 16 - 18
  2. 2. The Trail of Thompson I remember sitting in art class when I was about 16 years old, listening to the history of photography lecture. As a ‘budding’ photography enthusiast developing my portfolio for art school, portraiture was a natural genre to go into, because of the work I was exposed to, particularly through my lecturer. In this class we were shown work from Ansel, Lebowitz to Adler and then I saw Dorothea Lange’s image Migrant Mother {Figure 1}. To be honest I didn’t see or read the meaning behind it, I understood that the image represented poverty and family, all very generic ideas. I wonder why my view was so generic, perhaps I didn’t have the social understandings and history to understand its meaning. What I saw at the time was the beautiful composition and natural lighting of the image. This story of generalization of this image in particular will be the main connection throughout the paper; I plan to track the journey of the Migrant Mother through its use in the media and appropriation. Over the years I’ve seen Migrant Mother many a time in the media, in magazines, ad’s, campaigns and so on. The Migrant Mother biography spans almost 9 decades, from the birth of the photograph and which now surpasses the death of both Lange and Florence Thompson, who is the Migrant Mother. One of the main reasons why Migrant Mother has been so successfully communicated is simply because of the media and developments in digital reproductions and television. The image became more than it originally intended, it became a symbol, iconic, some would say. Now would be a good time to tell you its biography. In March 1936, in Nipomo Mesa, California in a pea pickers camp at the height of the Great Depression Lange found a camp of migrants, food was sparse and suffering was wide. Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration, at the time as a photojournalist, the image she was about to take, would make her career, and mark her as one of the influential social documentary photographer of her time. Lange took 6 {Figure 2} large format images, but only one became the Migrant Mother. Its funny as Lange’s field notes state that she never asked her name, or her history. Only years later her identity was revealed as Florence Thompson. But still a narrative was constructed about this woman and her family as the images where used in San Francisco News about the Nipamo camp which set a chain reaction of aid to the immigrants of the Great Depression. The image gained iconic status, but it wasn’t until 40 years later that she was track down and in the 1972, Florence Thompson gave an interview to the newspaper, Modesto Bee, telling her story of how she was less than happy with the impact the image had on her life as it haunted her for decades. Thompson claimed that Lange promised the photo never would be 2
  3. 3. The Trail of Thompson published and felt betrayed when it appeared in newspapers. In fact, Thompson was not a migrant, but a Native American woman with her family travelling for work. ‘Professor Lawrence Levine has argued that the FSA photographers focused their lenses on "perfect victims," and in so doing, rendered a caricatured portrait of the era.’1 As Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration, and employee of the government, ownership of the images was not in question, nor Thompson or Lange could claim ownership, it was the public who ‘owned’ them. The image is part of the public domain and is freely distributed through the Internet whilst the negatives reside in the Library of Congress, USA. Apparently Lange never intended to sell the images; in fact she did not, and neither Lange nor Thompson received any profit from the images, although we could argue Lange profited greatly by other means. But instead gave the images to the San Francisco News, and set Lange to be the social commenter of her time. This freedom the Migrant Mother has, had enabled the image to roam in newspapers and campaigns and therein started the journey of reproduction and appropriation. But I’m not going to go into the direct histories and impact for Thompson and Lange as questions of ownership arises. The issue of ownership is part of a larger topic, and there just doesn’t seem like there is enough room in this biography at the moment to do it justice. Instead I want to focus the discussion to not ownership and impact, but of how the media use this image and appropriation of its symbolic nature. I will also be discussing this in the realm of materialization, the photograph as an object as discussed by Janice Hart and Elizabeth Edwards 2 through its social biography. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart talked of the photograph as a material object: “It is a photograph that carries on it the marks of its own history, of its chemical deterioration, and the fact that it once belonged to a broader visual narrative … re-enacting its narrative in many different contexts. Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space and thus in social and cultural experience.”3 1 Quote from Geoffrey Dunn, Photographic Licence essay; Professor Lawrence Levine teaches History at Berkley 2 Photographs as objects Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Introduction, Chicago Press 2004 3 Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Routledge, 3
  4. 4. The Trail of Thompson At first interpretation of Edwards and Hart, I thought they were focused on the physical material object, the tangibility of a print, but on the contrary. The material forms of the photograph also refers to the value and dialogue that the image creates in itself; the ‘image and referent are laminated’4 . The social biography of the photograph describes the material nature of the history that is coded into the image itself and the transition of the image through space and time; the life that the image has lived in the media from its conception. Jean-Claude Lemagny discusses the Social Biographies of the photographs in his essay the Subject of Photography5 . He comments on the salient nature of the photograph that constructs its own narratives and gains new identities with continual use. MASS MEDIA As a sweeping statement, it’s clear that we have become somewhat reliant of the media and its reach and exploration of information. The use of photography in the media is obvious, just look at photojournalism, visual additions to the news, whether in the newspaper or television; all could come under the sub discipline of visual anthropology - as a general statement. The use of photography in a modern, (non high art) general understanding could stem from an anthropological turn as a spectator of the visual information, we see other cultures, learn, particularly from the 19th century on, but in our present society, we are saturated in social photography as part of our everyday language. The use of Photography in an anthropological sense parallels the shift the cultural turn, of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a social value, a visual economy, which is the publicity of the private sphere, the private is consumed publicly. Photography becomes a key factor in translating ‘cultural identity’6 from a specific group, time or event. In this case its an image that translates an era, a time. Migrant Mother has successfully translated (Roland Barthes idea of the Punctum7 ) the depth of the desperation of the Great Depression, rich with London, 2004. Page 1 (Introduction) 4 Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Routledge, London, 2004. Page 4 5 The Subject of Photography- A History of Photography by Jean-Claude Lemagny; André Rouille; Janet Lloyd; The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories by John Tagg 6 Annual Review of Anthropology, Anthropology and Mass Media , Debra Spitulnik, Page 293 7 ‘Punctum’ as described by Roland Barthes, in his Book Camera Lucida, 1980: “punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.” 4
  5. 5. The Trail of Thompson details, which signify a home, details that establish a relationship with the content of the photograph itself, a time, and a family. The composition and construction of the image - however staged by Lange, was to fulfill the ideal emotive response by directing the viewers gaze, controlling the spectator as they look for some glimpse of the here and now, to relate to. The image is constructed well, Thompson looks reflective with years of hardship, the children’s faces masked by their mother holding and protecting them. The lines on her face tell a thousand stories. The composition is very interesting; but I am weary of commenting on the construction of the image, particularly of the remarkable resemblance to the iconic and very much appropriated imagery of the Madonna and child. I am weary of mentioning this as I do not want to go into religious grounding of such imagery, particularly in the media, but I do feel it is important to recognize. Whether iconic or not, imagery in the media has the ability to permeate the entire fabric of many societies through visual narratives and codes. An articles from the Smithsonian comments on this very point with I suspect humorous intent on the connotations of the image: The Migrant Madonna8 . Roland Barthes grounds the topic as the continual use of such an iconic image as Migrant Mother in the media, as he discusses in Camera Lucida, where the photograph reproduces to infinity, ‘The Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’. 9 The use of imagery in the media being repeated and appropriated is part of the salient nature of the photograph, the translation and exploration of cultures and identities through visual narratives. Here is where we look at Debra Spitulnik who delves into the world of anthropology and mass media. ‘One enduring concern is ‘the power’ of the mass media, and in particular their roles as vehicle of culture’ 10 The use of visual media has become a force that provides audiences with ways of seeing and interpreting societies throughout the world. Helping others to construct narratives and ideas of other cultures, a visual exchange of cultures and ideals when constructing an “image of lives, meanings and 8 Migrant Madonna, By Rebecca Maksel, Smithsonian magazine, March 2002 Read more: 9 Camera Lucida, 1980, Roland Barthes Page 4 10 Annual Review of Anthropology, Anthropology and Mass Media , Debra Spitulnik, Page 294 5
  6. 6. The Trail of Thompson practices, and values of other groups and classes” 11 APPROPRIATION Migrant Mother has not only been used in various contexts but also appropriated in other ways, reflecting on the relationship between the obvious symbolic meanings of a photograph (which Barthes calls the: stadium). The observer’s political and historical awareness, they have ‘volume, opacity, tactility and a physical presence in the world’12 Photographs have histories, embedded signs and signifiers in the context in which it was taken, whether visible or invisible, but have a present and a future of how and when it has been used, and what in that moment, amends its meaning and how it will be appropriated next. I'm unsure if I can call this image a commodity, but I am also weary of focusing solely on the explanation from Elizabeth Edwards paper of photography and materiality: "instead, they occupy spaces, move into different spaces, following lines of passage and usage that project them through the world”13 Can this particular photograph become a visual value of representation to show and portray a particular event of the past which has been seized in media ads and campaigns? That has been appropriated in new photography and media, which have codes and embodied signs and composition of the Lange image? Let us look at Time Magazine cover edition, April 12, 1999 {Figure 3} depicting a mother and baby, amidst the war in Kosovo. What I shall call an appropriation of the Migrant Mother, not necessarily aesthetically. But through the meaning and cultural codes of understanding of the image – the cognitional locus to the Madonna and Child Imagery I referenced earlier. The Time Magazine cover, (and additional imagery located in the illustration list) connotes the same symbolic construction and attributes to that of the Migrant Mother. The content of the image reveals a similar tale, desperation due to war, deprivation and neglect, a narrative that transcends various cultures. The dominant nature of the content and physical attributes of the photograph is providing the audience with information, the 11 Annual Review of Anthropology, Anthropology and Mass Media, Debra Spitulnik, Page 294 12 Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Routledge, London, 2004. (Batchen 1997:2) 13 Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Routledge, London, 2004 (Straw 1998:2)" 6
  7. 7. The Trail of Thompson influence in the arrangement and projection of visual information. Howard Morphy and Marcus Banks edited the book; Rethinking Visual Anthropology, they describe the performance of the photograph as an object: "Photographs have inextricably linked meanings as images and meanings as objects; an indissoluble, yet ambiguous, melding of image and form, both of which are direct products of intention… It can also be observed that these material forms exist in dialogue with the image itself to create the associative values placed on them."14 It is an approach that privileges the idea that somehow photographs maintain a level of material transparency and what is important about them is the image content alone. Such an approach sways against the idea that photographs are solid physical objects. As I am taking the route of the photograph as an object in almost a cultural sense (not discarding the tangible nature of printed matter) How has the image been used in translating the topic of which its original intent construed – we can take the recent 15 {Figure 4} post on Facebook August 2011: Facebook is the epitome of networking, along with such websites as Flicker and Tumbler. Such sites, particularly Facebook are a hub for various political organizations, stances and such. I became a member of whilst on a stint living in the USA working for a social and politically driven arts foundation. I receive many updates, videos and imagery through this social networking page. And recently I saw the Migrant Mother image being used as part of a discussion board. The image and some text quoting Don Halder Camoaro, “When I give food to the poor I am a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”. The quote in itself tells of a plight, and questions that go unanswered and neglected. In parallel to the iconic image, it visually resonates with the viewer. Giving a visual narrative to an image that is part of public discourse and memory, however general some may view the image, just as Susan Sontag implies, that the image can lose its specific identity and gain a 14 Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Yale University Press, Introduction, Page 2 15 7
  8. 8. The Trail of Thompson generic mass identity for all. As I said earlier in the essay I think that the Migrant Mother has become generalized, it has a sense of plurality, it is recognized in its original format, but its specific meaning and value through its continual analysis and use has become like a commodity, it has become generic, it is de-historicized (I use de- historicized as a blanket statement, as the image can now fill various contexts and still have some meaning, contradictory, yes.) ‘In many cases, once-active signifiers of meaning are now dormant and obscure or radically altered. It is the traces of these former material lives that cling to photographs that provide the focus for Photographs Objects Histories, for they are vital clues for understanding the historical potency of the image.’16 The romantic reconstruction and appropriation of the image devalues perhaps, the photograph (in this instance) as an objective recording of an event, an era. The image has been the topic of many academics, journalistic essays and articles on the American depression era and beyond. Bringing into question not only economics of that time, but also in a contemporary context through politics, race and sociology. Janet Wolff argues in the ‘Social Production of Art’, 1981 that visual representation is never separate from its cultural foundations, which helps to shape it. LEGACY - Reproduction of the image: John Szarkowski a noted photographer and historian commented that “one could do very interesting research about all of the ways that the Migrant Mother has been used; all of the ways that it has been doctored, painted over, made to look Spanish and Russian; and all the things it has been used to prove.” The photo’s legacy seems to have several, closely related articulations. The most obvious is its role as dominant image in collective memory of the Great Depression. This role is largely institutional: it is the issue of the school books, museum displays, postage stamps, didactic Web pages, and other media for organizing a national narrative for a popular audience. That story is buttressed by the second-order account of the photograph’s iconic status, as when the Art in America curricular package for teachers says, “Migrant Mother, a portrayal of a homeless working family, is an ICON of the Great Depression.”17 16 Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Yale University Press, Introduction, Page 5 17 8
  9. 9. The Trail of Thompson The Iconic image of the Migrant Mother has had many a journey, as Szarkowski noted; the image has been integrated into the public domain obtaining various connotations and attributes, a history longer than that of photography itself. Has the image become part of a visual economy? I would say from my understanding, yes. The Visual Economy from my understanding is that this is an analysis that goes beyond representations, but to the image’s exchange values. John Tagg discusses the model of ‘Visual Currency’ in his essay ‘The Currency of the Photograph’18 . The photograph is a product of a culture, or event, which creates a currency by use of its visuals, i.e. a photograph. John Tagg's definition: "Items produced by a certain elaborate mode of production...distributed, circulated and consumed within a given set of social relations: pieces of paper that change hands, find use, meaning and a value in certain social rituals"19 The power of the Migrant Mother is one that translates a sense of authority. Through its continual use and representation, this authority can only be really realized through the category of photojournalism. Photojournalism has this authority due to realism: realism is essential for spectators in decoding the image, and achieving a social reflexive relationship (a mirror image) within it. The image has a currency and value of the era in which it depicts is within the laws of reflection, in the real world. “While clearly representational content is a key element in this model, material forms and their use value have … integral to the way in which groups of images were exchanged, accumulated and thus given social value, the power of the image being related to their status as accumulated objects "20 The Migrant Mother had gone nation wide in 1972 on a postage stamp21 {Figure 5}. In acknowledgment of the Great Depression, in recognition of the people effected. The image had become 18 Thinking Photography, Victor Burgon, Essay ‘The Currency of the Photograph’ John Tagg 1951 19 Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Yale University Press, Introduction, Page 5 20 Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Yale University Press, Introduction, Page 9 21 9
  10. 10. The Trail of Thompson part of a larger visual economy; it had accumulated a physical price, not only the value of the postage stamp but as a social image that would symbolize the people, an era. A value that not many photographs would achieve, a value that is exchangeable in the sense of social understanding and relations, a social binding which engages with a broader audience. The image has been given value as an object, through the trail of the photograph revealing its histories in various contexts, through means of production, for they have clear and important clues for us in understanding the weight of the image. The signs and signifiers in the Migrant Mother, particularly from the other 5 images shows the conditions in which the family lived, their clothing, Thompsons frame, signs camp, how objects aid in constructing a world of visual cultural meaning. The Migrant Mother’s journey extends to an appropriation of an all American show depicting the birth of California to the present day, staring Whoopy Goldberg. The ‘Golden Dreams’22 Show at Disney’s Californian adventure show, a re-enactment of Dorothea Lange taking Florence Thompsons iconic image. It’s now branched out into the educational system of Disney and through various books depicting the ‘Dust Bowl’ and Immigrants of America. Despite the re-enactment and various interpretations, Thompson wasn’t an immigrant but a full-blooded Native American, travelling for work and happened upon the pea-pickers camp for a short stay. So Thompson’s grandson had told. Then we come to the political charity campaign ad. “How close is another Depression?23 ”. {Figure 6} The Migrant Mother juxtaposed with another image of mother and children from 1996. The icon of poverty has been translated to contemporary day, as the issue still resonates. Michael Hariman and John Loius Lucaites argued that the iconic image circulates in the public domain as an important part of public discourse in a liberal society. "… The “icon of poverty” has been excised from its original context and altered or reproduced for contemporary purposes—as when, for instance, a recent commercial for Allstate includes the photograph and connects the economic troubles of the recent downturn to those in the ‘thirties in an attempt to sell car insurance." - "These two examples of reproduction and re- photography provided … an excellent opportunity for discussing the relationship between 22 The Golden Dreams Show, Disney California,, time of re-enactment in show is: 11.32-12.32 minutes. 23 “How close is another Depression?” - 10
  11. 11. The Trail of Thompson context and pathos in social documentary photography." 24 The ‘Back-to-Basics ad for Allstate Insurance took a positivist approach, a montage of Images depicting the Great Depression, where the Migrant Mother took central stage. A sentimental outlook embracing the past and saying ‘we survived 12 recessions since then’. The visual language of Migrant Mother is deeply evident here, as the audience knows exactly from the image what is being said. How the desperation of that time translates to a value now we can exchange and decipher. Not the specifics of her struggle, but the general code of that era.25 The photograph has been historicized wherein the ‘hidden histories of the image are revealed through conceptualizations’ as referenced by Elizabeth Edwards. The Migrant Mother is within the tableau of public memory, identities and behavior through discourse. I don’t have a conclusion per say, as I don’t think this paper has the room to fully explore the breadth and impact the Migrant Mother has had in the larger history of the image. This is more of an discussion rather that having a concise argument for or against, but the beginnings of documenting the trail of the iconic image, track its social biography, as an object in the metonymic sense and also to track its physical movement. The translation and interpretation of the iconic image derives through constructed narratives, which move through space and time as an object that binds the viewer to it. We have seen from Edwards and Hart that photography constructs its own material culture. The photograph becomes a socially salient object, physically and through meaning and discourse. Photography is subject to continual re-analysis by others, its histories live beyond the moment of conception. The Migrant Mother has lead a life outside the confines of the FSA taking on new identities with reproduction and more reproduction and appropriation. I’ll end with a great (somewhat fixed) quote from Edward Weston, ‘Photography is simply too honest a medium for recording superficial aspects of a subject. It… 24 No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Robert Hariman, John Louis Lucaites Page 727 25 - Allstate Insurance, Ad review - Allstate Insurance ‘Back to Basics’ 2009 11
  12. 12. The Trail of Thompson exposes the contrived, the trivial, the artificial for what they really are.’26 Make of that what you will. 26 Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Yale University Press, Introduction, Page 54, Weston Quote from 1980, Page 174, Edward Weston, photographs and papers 12
  13. 13. The Trail of Thompson ILLUSTRATION FIGURE LIST: Figure 1, Page 2 Figure 2, Page 2 13
  14. 14. The Trail of Thompson Figure 3, Page 6 Additional imagery from Time magazine 14
  15. 15. The Trail of Thompson Figure 3, Page 7 Figure 4, Page 9 Figure 5, Page 10 15
  16. 16. The Trail of Thompson BIBLIOGRAPHY Photography changes how art history is taught (2010) click! Photography Changes Everything. ? Migrant Mother (Famous Photograph) ? [Internet], Available from: < mother-famous-photograph/> [Accessed 10/26/2011 2011]. Depression icon homeless again after seven decades - Local - [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 11/29/2011 2011]. Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection: An Overview - Guides, Reference Aids, and Finding Aids (Prints andPhotographs ReadingRoom, Library of Congress) [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 10/26/2011 2011]. Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother photograph — Alistair Scott's PhotoZone [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 10/25/2011 2011]. Ethics Matters [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 10/26/2011 2011]. Food For The Poor | Great Depression [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 12/15/2011 2011]. Golden Dreams Last Show - Disney California Adventure - YouTube [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 12/15/2011 2011]. JSTOR: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 22 (1993), pp. 293-315 [Internet], Available from: < seq=5&Search=yes&searchText=mass&searchText=anthropology&searchText=photography&searchText=m edia,&list=hide&searchUri=/action/doBasicSearch?Query=anthropology+and+mass+media%252C+ +photography&gw=jtx&acc=on&prq=anthropology+photography&hp=25&wc=on&prevSearch=&item=4&tt l=1997&returnArticleService=showFullText&resultsServiceName=null> [Accessed 12/14/2011 2011]. JSTOR: College Art Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (May, 1945), pp. 203-206 [Internet], Available from: < &Search=yes&searchText=newhall,&searchText=nancy&searchText=photography&list=hide&searchUri=/ac tion/doBasicSearch?Query=nancy+newhall %252C+photography&gw=jtx&prq=nancy+newhall&Search=Search&hp=25&wc=on&prevSearch=&item=1 &ttl=190&returnArticleService=showFullText> [Accessed 12/8/2011 2011]. JSTOR: Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1989), pp. 115-121 [Internet], Available from: < &Search=yes&searchText=1987&searchText=History&searchText=Photography&searchText=Lemagny's&li st=hide&searchUri=/action/doBasicSearch?Query=Lemagny %25E2%2580%2599s+History+of+Photography+ %25281987%2529&acc=on&wc=on&prevSearch=&item=1&ttl=1&returnArticleService=showFullText> [Accessed 12/8/2011 2011]. JSTOR: Rhetoric Review, Vol. 20, No. 1/2 (Spring, 2001), pp. 37-42 [Internet], Available from: 16
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  18. 18. The Trail of Thompson The Validity Of Appropriation Vs. Copyright In Photography - JPG News [Internet], Available from: <> [Accessed 12/9/2011 2011]. Hariman, R. & Lucaites, J.L. (2007) No caption needed: iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy Chicago, University of Chicago Press. HENNESSY, K. & CAMPBELL, C. (2009) A New Website for the Society for Visual Anthropology: American Anthropologist, vol. 111, no. 3, pp. 387 <last_page> 390. John Tagg (1951) The Burden of Representation. , (abstract). Linda (2011) The Most Thought-Provoking Quote You Can Share On Facebook Today MoveOn.Org. Shapiro, M.J. (2008; 2008) No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. By Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 432p. $30.00. Perspectives on Politics, vol. 6, no. 02. Shapiro, M.J. (2008; 2008) No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. By Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 432p. $30.00. Perspectives on Politics, vol. 6, no. 02. 18