Social Documents

Dorothea Lange, Outtake of “Human erosion in California” (Migrant Mother), 1936, International Center of Photography, NY

A question of authenticity links the cases presented by Nicole Fleetwood, Leigh Raiford, and Sally Stein. They all compare and contrast photographers against their subject or with other photographers to emphasize the power of documentary interventions and mishaps in shaping perception for a particular milieu. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” has been argued to be authentic even though it was consciously framed, filtered, and some of its crucial details overlooked because it adheres to the documentary principles of photography which has less to do with capturing a spontaneous event than constructing historical evidence (Stein 352). The image of a mother and her children on the brink of starvation first appeared in 1936, and it has come to stand for the hardship endured by migratory farm workers during the Great Depression. As a “national icon of maternal fortitude,” the image has been taken to task for failing to recognize the racial origins of Florence Thomas and incorrectly labelling her as a “migrant” (Stein 345). In the absence of anything that exhibits her Cherokee identity or her non-performance of her ethnicity, the “migrant mother” has been placed by default in the “distinctly Euro-American scenario of hallowed Christian maternity;” an iconographic convention that historically favoured whiteness (Stein 351). This reminds me of Richard Dyer’s treatise on “whiteness,” from our previous readings as an invisible racial position, as a “colour” against which other ethnicities are always examined. Fleetwood’s discussion of Peirce’s sign theory has been useful in analyzing the non-iconic photographs of Charles Harris, which she contrasts to the staged photograph of Rosa Parks riding a bus. Harris’ indexical practice of documenting the non-iconic presents an aesthetic that has a more direct relation to the singularity of the subject by exposing “the limitations of its framing” (22). Fleetwood argues that such an image cannot stand in for the historical process in the way that the photograph of Rosa Parks on the bus has come to do (3,19). She interrogates the focus on individual acts and achievements within grand historical narratives and cautions that to demythologize iconic photographs “does not challenge the significance of the activism represented” (4).  Leigh Raiford investigates the parallels between the lives of Marcus Garvey, a Pan-African Union leader and his photographer, James Vanderzee. Raiford’s essay investigates the use of photography to “mobilize racial feeling and to assert a vision of black modernity.” Her study encourages us to think “stereoscopically”—an approach that parallels the techniques of her subjects— about the relationship between photography and Pan-Africanism as projects that engage in a kind of corrective work during the interwar period. Raiford argues that the camera, which for subalterns had often been a technology of violence wielded against them, “became a tool for reimagining the individual and collective black body” (270-71). Read and understood within the context of the political ferment brewing in 1920s Harlem, the photographic document of union conventions is able to smooth out a more authentic picture of the tensions of the African-American diaspora. (279)  Trachtenberg ruminates on the fine contradiction between Alfred Stieglitz “camera work” and its preoccupation with dismantling conventions of the photographic medium, and Lewis Hine’s “social work” and relocated their debate back to an expanded realm of aesthetics where a photograph does not become a less authentic work of art because of its embeddedness in a collective and its causes. (Trachtenberg 168-70).

Further reading

Alan Trachtenberg, “Camera/ Social Work,” in Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. By Alan Trachtenberg. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989)

Leigh Raiford, “Marcus Garvey in Stereograph,” Small Axe, Volume 17, Number 1, March 2013 (No. 40), pp. 263-280

Sally Stein, PASSING LIKENESS: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and the Paradox of lconicity

Nicole Fleetwood, “”One shot”: Harris and the photographic practice of black non-iconicity,” from Troubling Vision: performance, visuality and blackness (2011)

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