February 18, 2008

Unwilling Icon: Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson, the "Migrant Mother"

Six Frames in Ten Minutes on a Cold Day in 1936

"Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers' camp ... because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food." -- Field Notes by Dorothea Lange, Nipomo, California, March 1936 on "Migrant Mother"

"You can see a lot just by looking." -- Yogi Berra

1. Photographers to Fauxtographers

Once we were wrapped in a web of words but now, more and more, our web is woven of images. When wrapped in the images of our age -- especially those images backlit by history -- we see what we wish to see or, more insidiously, what we are told we see.

As this is written a leading candidate for the presidency leads not through his policies or his proposals, but because of an ethnic background that is obvious for all to see. Yet this very thing, this central element of his candidacy, is the one thing one is forbidden to see or, when seeing, saying it matters.

This may be the first time in the history of televised elections that what can be seen cannot be said or, when said, can be denied as a factor even as that factor fires both hope and fear. In this politician it is, at last, what is inside that is said to count even as what is outside is what really counts, for or against, when all the votes are counted. Remove the candidate's ethnic background and you remove his hope of election. Add that background in and the rest matters little if at all. It is the ancient game of cups and ball where the ball is presumed to be beneath one of the three cups, but is in reality held in the magician's hand.

We wouldn't have it any other way. We have come to depend on the manipulation of images in order to order our world views and our view of the world in the way believers once depended on the intervention of saints or household gods. And if others will not manipulate images to suit us it matters little. We will select and manipulate them within ourselves. When it comes to selective seeing through images we are very sophisticated.

The webbed world into which we have woven ourselves values subjective truths more than objective facts. It is a universe in which confirmation bias is sought more than wisdom. It is a universe formed of concentric circles of social networks with the self in the center and under it all the tag-line, "An agreeable person is one who agrees with me." In this Humpty Dumpty realm where the self is more central than sense we can say with the Eggman on the wall,

When I choose an image,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make images mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

One of the primary promises of photography is the promise to faithfully file facts. The ability of photographs -- taken raw and without deception -- to present us with a record of the world is its signal strength and its greatest weakness. For where the raw image may capture us "warts and all," the raw image quickly becomes an out-take of the selected image. For a simple group shot a skilled manipulator of images may in the service of vanity remove those warts or, in the case of Kremlinography, remove inconvenient people altogether.

"Nikolai Yezhov, the young man strolling with Stalin to his left in this photo from the 1930s, was executed in 1940. Following his death, he was edited out of the photo by Soviet censors.... just before the execution Yezhov was ordered to undress himself and then was beaten by guards. His ashes were dumped in a common grave."

Even at its most honest and raw state photography is, at best, selective seeing when one image is selected over others of the same subject taken in the same session. In photography the out-takes, if you can find them, are often more true to the moment than what has been selected to be seen.

Purposely manipulated photography was once the fiefdom of professional portraitists and propaganda mills. This is no longer so. The past 20 years since advent of Photoshop has let amateur manipulation come into its own as a tool of amateur satire, partisan politics, asymmetrical warfare and online dating. Through Photoshop "Photography" has met "Fauxtography" and has not benefitted from the introduction.

Of course, even before the age of Photoshop we knew that if a picture was worth 1,000 words, many of them were likely to be lies. Still, it is a hardwired aspect of the human brain that seeing remains believing. This is why obviously manipulated or constructed images of impossible situations amuse, intrigue, and grab at our attention.


Advertising depends on this in order to get you to look at the product. Propaganda, manipulating images in subtler ways, also depends on this to make you believe that the lie behind the image is the truth. In looking at photographs we need to be constantly ready to practice a willing suspension of belief.

"View from the Window at Le Gras, the first successful permanent photograph created by Nicephore Niepce in 1826, Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. Captured on 20 x 25 cm oil-treated bitumen. Due to the 8-hour exposure, the buildings are illuminated by the sun from both right and left."

From a filer of plain facts (The view outside the Window at Le Gras, above), photography has evolved to be an untrustworthy medium. It is a medium that, through its very seductive power, the sophisticated viewer has learned to be wary when accepting what he sees represented in the image as "the truth" of a situation.


Still there is a level of manipulation more subtle than that provided by the tools of Photoshop; a level of a much more ancient lineage. This is the level at which what is seen by the viewer has been selected not to display the facts but to promulgate "the truth." The slight of hand here is that "the truth" as displayed by the one selecting it must be seen by the viewer as, first and foremost, a fact if it is to have any power at all. We like to be fooled if it fits our world-view. We do not like to know we are being fooled. It spoils the frisson of the finer feelings.

As we have seen repeatedly with the rise of the Internet, the physical manipulation of photography is much easier to detect than the unintentional of willful bias of the "documentary" or "news" photographer is superimposed on the image. Here what the photographer or the photographer's editor holds back -- takes out -- is often more illuminating than what is left in. It may not be as "powerful" but it is often closer to the truth. But if another "higher" truth is what is being pursued, then facts are often filed under "Forget."
[End of Part 1]

Next: 2. The Origins of Icons

Posted by Vanderleun at February 18, 2008 11:08 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Obama is said, by those who've seen him in person, to be a great public speaker. George Packer has written about Obama's speaking talents. Obama's appearance is secondary, but helpful.

And you left out the famous photos of Willie Horton. Maybe in part II.

Posted by: JFred at February 18, 2008 1:24 PM

Snake oil and crystal balls fired the imaginations of young and old alike for years and the Wizard Of Oz understood this best. After all, truth is such a dull substitute.

I wish I could get more people to watch "Zardoz". A movie about so much more than Sean Connery in red diapers.

Arthur Frayn: I am Arthur Frayn, and I am Zardoz. I have lived 300 years, and long to die. But death is no longer possible, I am immortal. I present now my story - full of mystery and intrigue. Rich in irony, and most satirical. It is set deep within a possible future, so none of these events have yet occurred. But they may! Be warned, lest you end as I. In this tale I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination. Merlin is my hero! I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see. But I am invented too for your entertainment and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in showbusiness too?

Posted by: David McKinnis at February 18, 2008 3:10 PM

"the physical manipulation of photography is much easier to detect"

Only because the technology is still young. For my job at a portrait studio I routinely do edits that should be undetectable, and one of the reasons they like me is because they *are* undetectable when they're done right. Look at Worth 1000. There's a lot of talented artists out there, and I'm sure that a way to fake EXIF data is out there as well.

But even unretouched photography, straight from camera to print, can lie. It's all in what you put in and leave out, such as the children's toys that always seem to be so well-framed in the rubble.

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