Saturday 23 October 2010

Documentary Photography lesson 1

Documentary photography is often used to incite political and social change due to its ability to capture the “true” nature of an image or location.

Lewis Hine ( ) and James Van DerZee are two pioneers of documentary photography.  Through documentary images the public learns the truth about political, environmental, and cultural situations. Documentary exploded in the 1930’s during the great depressions when photographers started to document the American lives during that time.  The Federal government hired about twenty photographers to develop a pictorial record of the impact of the hard times on the nation.
Dorothea Lange's portrait of “Migrant Mother” and Walker Evans's 1936 series depicting the faces and homes of Alabama sharecroppers have become icons of the era.

However, there is another side to this story… Documentary has a stark record in the 30’s of manipulation of the images, but is a direct violation or the photojournalist’s creed. Evan’s rearranged the houses of the tenant farmer families, while they were working in the fields, in order to construct harmonious scenes of dignified poverty.  He pushed a bed out from the wall to create a diagonal form that crosses like a sash from the top left to the bottom right, and he removed a dirty white suit which hung from the wall. He removed dish clutter and left a lamp to gently reflect light but placed a butter churn to resonate with the lamp.  In the end, the documented images, did not truly reflect the lives inhabited by the farmers.  Instead, he created order where there was chaos.

It was later discovered that Dorothea Lang’s Migrant Mother, was retouched to remove the mother’s thumb (Florence) from the lower right corner of the image. There is controversy over the ethics of approaching the subjects, the Mother known as Florence Owens Thompson.

When Dorothea asked to photograph Florence, she was told that the image would not be published.  But the images ran almost immediately in the San Francisco News and afterwards the federal government went to the camp and delivered 20,000 pounds of food. 

In Dorothea’s field notes, she mentions that the family sold tires to buy food, however, during a later interview with Troy Owens, (once the families name became known) that they did not sell tires, because they did not have any to sell.  The child to the left of the image, said that she feels shame for their poverty from that image.  Florence was quoted as saying, "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did.”

The Postal Service made a stamp of the image in 1998 and sold a print of the photograph with handwritten notes from Dorothea for $244,500.  In November 2002, Lange’s personal print of the Migrant Mother sold for $141.500, and in October 2005, someone paid $296,000 for the rediscovered 32 vintage, untouched Lange photos.

In 1983, Florence was hospitalized and her family appealed for financial assistance.  By September, they collected $25,000 in donations to pay for her medical care. Florence died of cancer and heart problems in September 16, 1983.