The Truth Behind One of America’s Most Famous Photos

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Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is an iconic representation of the Great Depression, and one of the most famous photos of all time. There’s more to the story than just the one famous image, however.

This video does a great job of breaking down the circumstances of how Lange got started in photography, and more specifically, shooting her most famous subjects. The Farm Security Administration, the government agency responsible for commissioning Lange’s work, was using the images to promote government programs to help those displaced by the Depression.

What I found the most interesting was the number of attempts she took at creating an image in the scene. Rearranging the kids, posing the mother, and even some darkroom adjustments to clone out a finger were all fair game. Granted, the images were only nominally photojournalistic, as they were more akin to propaganda. Overall, I think it is clear the final result is the strongest, despite being the most structured. The image definitely accomplishes its goal of inspiring support for the migrants.

Many argue that film photography is immune to manipulation, or that digital has opened the door to dishonest practices. Many famous film photographs feature heavy adjustments in the darkroom, and this breakdown of the image is a great example of the changes that can be made even before the shutter is clicked.

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Joe Black's picture

Lovely share. Thanks a lot

Chris Ram's picture

Such great info! Thanks

Peter Lyons's picture

Very interesting to know the background.

Deleted Account's picture

This has been brought up before but it deserves to be reiterated. There is no 'cloning out' of a finger in the photo. It was meticulously 'spotted out', using a very small brush (#0000 or #00000) and liquid Spotone. What takes seconds in photoshop can take an hour or longer in the darkroom.

Please develop/display a respect for history, especially for the very important photos from our past. Applying terminology of the present to the past, is anachronistic at best, ignorant at the worst.

Kirk Darling's picture

Who argues that film is immune to manipulation? Who argues that?

My avatar started as a straightforward Kodachrome slide.

Deleted Account's picture

It's not that it's immune, only that it is very, very difficult.

Adam Nelson's picture

Love this story. Goes to show you should never stop adventuring

Roger Jones's picture

Film was way harder to manipulate in the darkroom, and took longer to do, plus it cost more money. With digital it's bing bang boom..... done. Digital is easy, easier to make "fake" images or combined images. When I was a photojournalist in the 60's thru the 80's I tried my best to be honest, to keep my photos "clean" straight out of the camera. In the darkroom I had a steadfast rule only some dodging and burning, but with PP you can change it all. When shooting digital now I try my best to not PP, that's why I'm shooting more film. To be honest it's cheaper to shoot film, I have no monthly fees, or new software or new computers and I own all the film gear. The image in question is one of the all time greats, no matter how it was shot. Moving your subject for a better image or to tell the story better isn't manipulation, well it is, but your not like changing the image altogether that's done in the camera before the shoot.
Oh well
Have fun

Kirk Darling's picture

For the sake of the current generation, the better conversation is whether truth is in the technology or in how the photographer uses it. There seems to be a big "Wait...wut?" factor among younger people over the issue of image manipulation seemingly derived that the image is truth and the photographer must be controlled to keep the image truth.

I'd argue that in all cases all the time, truth is in the photographer, never in the image, and there are no rules of ethics we can devise that don't still depend on the photographer striving to tell the truth that he sees.

microteck's picture

You sound like a politician!

Kirk Darling's picture

Because I don't think truth comes out of box?

Deleted Account's picture

Thank you for the share!

EDWIN CUPELY's picture

Wow! Great story.