Photos are immediate—they are unstaged, unplanned, caught in the moment to stand as witnesses to history. …well, some of the time. Some photos really are all that, and they really do capture a moment that speaks to millions of people.
For example, John Filo’s famous photo of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University in 1970:
Filo did not stage this photo. It went out to the American public via LIFE and other magazines and communicated the shock of the incident, in which National Guard soldiers shot and killed unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War. But between Filo taking the photo and LIFE publishing it, one little edit was made: the pole behind Ms. Vecchio, that looks like it was coming out of her head, was airbrushed out.
Someone in Editing somewhere thought that pole coming out of the young woman’s head was too distracting and took it out. That someone wasn’t the photographer, in this case, but would it have mattered if it was? Does perfecting a photo after the fact take away from its integrity? If a photo is staged, can it be as powerful as a lucky shot taken on the fly? Is crafting a moment less authentic than capturing one?
We put this question to students in a continuing effort to give them more authority and control over their reading of photographs. (See Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos). Photos seem to be unquestionable to most students: they have one clear, set meaning to give the student that the student must passively receive. We want to show students that this is not always, or not completely, true. As Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.”
In Selfie, we showed strategies to bring meaning to Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photo Migrant Mother:
This image is so famous, and so ingrained in our minds and eyes that it’s hard to believe that it was only one of five photos Lange took of this woman and her family. Lange saw them when she visited a pea-pickers’ camp in California while documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Lange made no secret of the fact that she took several photos before she felt she got just the right one to tell the family’s story. Here’s how Lange described it:
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. [She] seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. …I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.”
Show your students the five related photos in Essential Lens, “Disaster and Government Response.” Start like Lange did, from a distance with #8015, then to #8016 – #8018. Then go to the final shot, and the one Lange knew was best: #8014. Ask students:
- What do you see as you “approach” the family? What was missing from the first four photos that Lange felt she finally got in the fifth?
- The first photos are taken at a distance. The first shows all of the children, while the next three show just two of them. What do you notice about the final photo? (It is a close-up.) Do you think Lange made this choice to get closer deliberately? If so, what was she trying to capture?
- Why do you think the two older children are in the final photo? Do you think Lange asked them to step in?
- The mother has the same worried expression in all five photos; what does she do in the fifth that makes it even more powerful? Do you think she did this consciously, to give a better photo? Why do you think the children hide their faces?
Discussing student responses helps them understand that crafting a moment for a photo can be just as powerful as capturing one by surprise, and that sometimes photos are a mix of lucky accident (such as Lange finding this family), and careful artistry (taking multiple shots and possibly asking people to pose a little). Also, they can consider how editing photos, even to remove objects that someone judges as distracting (like with Filo’s photo), can undermine authenticity.
Try this exercise with other photos in the Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum collection. Students can choose a photo that speaks to them and research the photographer to find other photos on the same topics. They may assess the artistry that went into that photographer’s work, and what makes one or two of their photos famous while others on the same topic are not.