An excerpt from
No Caption Needed
Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy
Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites
As was the custom among RA/FSA photographers who were trying to adhere to scientific method, her notes record no names but they do feature socioeconomic categories such as “destitute pea pickers” and “mother of seven children.” The picture itself needs no such help to draw on the prior decades of documentary photography. Direct exposure of ordinary, anonymous, working-class people engaged in the basic tasks of everyday life amidst degraded circumstances was the template of the social reform photography established by Lewis Hine and others in the early part of the twentieth century. The connection between photographic documentary and collective action was a well-established line of response, available as long as the photographer did not include the signs of other genres such as the focus on dramatic events of ordinary photojournalism or the obvious manipulation of art photography. Many other photos also met this standard, however, while the “Migrant Mother” quickly achieved critical acclaim as a model of documentary photography, becoming the preeminent photo among the hundreds of thousands of images being produced by RA/FSA photographers and used to promote New Deal policies. Roy Stryker, the head of the RA/FSA photography section, dubbed Lange’s photo the symbol for the whole project: “She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal.” According to a manager at the Library of Congress, where the image remains one of the most requested items in the photography collection, “It’s the most striking image we have; it hits the heart.… an American icon.”
Taken within the context of the Great Depression, it is not difficult to see how the photograph captures simultaneously a sense of individual worth and class victimage. The close portraiture creates a moment of personal anxiety as this specific woman, without name, silently harbors her fears for her children, while the dirty, ragged clothes and bleak setting signify the hard work and limited prospects of the laboring classes. The disposition of her body—and above all, the involuntary gesture of her right arm reaching up to touch her chin—communicates related tensions. We see both physical strength and palpable worry: a hand capable of productive labor and an absent-minded motion that implies the futility of any action in such impoverished circumstances. The remainder of the composition communicates both a reflexive defensiveness, as the bodies of the two standing children are turned inward and away from the photographer (as if from an impending blow), and a sense of inescapable vulnerability, for her body and head are tilted slightly forward to allow each of the three children the comfort they need, her shirt is unbuttoned, and the sleeping baby is in a partially exposed position.
These features of the photograph are cues for emotional responses that the composition manages with great economy. At its most obvious, “Migrant Mother” communicates the pervasive and paralyzing fear that was widely acknowledged to be a defining characteristic of the depression and experienced by many Americans irrespective of income. Thus, the photograph embodies a limit condition for democracy identified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” Roosevelt could not embody that emotion without bringing the country down with him, but perhaps this correspondence accounts in part for each being the most memorable text and image from the era. The shift from his oratory to her visual image has other consequences as well. Embodiment provides a dual function emotionally: it both represents and localizes feelings that can literally know no bounds. By depicting what was known to be a generalized anxiety within the specific form of a woman’s body, that emotion is both made real and constrained by conventional attributions of gender.
Class difference is a touchy subject in American political culture, and its presence is often carefully veiled. In “Migrant Mother” class is framed and subordinated in its allusion to religious imagery and its articulation of gender and family relations. The religious allusion may seem obvious, for the photograph follows the template of the Madonna and Child that has been reproduced thousands of times in Western painting, Roman Catholic artifacts for both church and home, and folk art. The primary relationship within the composition is between the mother and the serene baby lying beside her exposed breast, while the other children double as the cherubs or other heavenly figures that typically surround the Madonna. The center-margin relationship establishes the mother as the featured symbol in the composition, while the surrounding figures fill out its theme. Their poses, with eyes averted, give the scene its deep Christian pathos. Their dirty clothes are evocative of the stable in Bethlehem, while their averted eyes make it clear that all is not right in this scene. Instead of heavenly majesty, the transcription from sacred to secular art features vulnerability.
Rather than merely another instance of reproduction, it is more accurate to see the Lange image as a transitional moment in public art. The “Migrant Mother” provides two parallel transcriptions of the Madonna and Child: the image moves from painting to photography, and the Mother of Christ becomes an anonymous woman of the working class. These shifts demonstrate how iconic appeal can be carried over from religious art to increasingly secular, bourgeois representation, and from fine arts institutions to public media. Indeed, there is another, intermediate predecessor that, as far as we know, has not been noted before: William Adolphe Bougeureau’s painting, Charity (1865). [Offsite link: See an image of the painting on the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery website.] The painting recasts the portrait of the Madonna and Child as a poor woman with a baby and two other ragged children; her face appears tired and anxious, she is staring blankly into the distance, and the children are asleep or looking away from the viewer. We do not know whether Lange was aware of Bougeureau’s portrait, which had been long consigned to oblivion by the modernist artists and writers that she admired. The comparison does remind one that iconic photographs can exemplify what had been characteristic of the Salon painters, the combination of technical realism and moral sentimentalism.
As Wendy Kozol has documented, the use of impoverished women with children to represent poverty had been established as a convention of reformist photography by the 1930s. Lange’s photograph evokes this “iconography of liberal reform” by the association of the children with their mother in a world of want while leaving the male provider, who had been “rendered ineffectual by the Depression,” out of the picture. The analogy with the image of the Madonna strengthens the call to the absent father, whose obligation to care for this woman and her children assumes Biblical proportions (and the structure of patriarchal responsibility and control). The photograph follows the conventional lines of gender by associating paralyzing fear with feminine passivity and keeping maternal concern separate from economic resources. The mother gathers her children to her, protecting them with her body, yet she is unable to provide for their needs. She cannot act, but she (and her children) provide the most important call for action. More to the point, the question posed by the photo is, Who will be the father? The actual father is neither present nor mentioned. The captioning never says something like, “A migrant mother awaits the return of her husband.” As with the Madonna, a substitution has occurred. Another provider is called to step into the husband’s place.
Any iconic photo structures relationships between those in the picture and the public audience; indeed, that rhetorical relationship is the most important appeal in the composition and the primary reason that the images can function as templates for public life. In the case of the Migrant Mother, the photograph interpellates the viewer in the position of the absent father. The viewer, though out of the picture, has the capacity for action identified with the paternal role. This position outside the image also doubles as a place of public identity, for the viewer is always being defined as part of a public audience by the photograph’s placement in the public media, while the public itself never can be seen directly. Thus, the public is cast in the traditional role of family provider, while the viewer becomes capable of potentially great power as part of a collective response. The mother’s dread and distress call forth the patriarchal duty to provide the food, shelter, and work that is needed to sustain the family, while the scale of the response can far exceed individual action. In fact, the picture already has rendered individual action secondary to an organized collective response (a response such as Roosevelt had called for to combat the terror “which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”). Ironically, the “Migrant Mother” creates the greatest sense of deprivation in respect to one thing that the woman had: a husband who could provide for her. Yet by becoming the definitive representation of the Great Depression, the era is defined visually as Roosevelt proclaimed: a psychological condition and a failure of state action rather than a “failure of substance.”
One measure of the shift of responsibility from individual to collective action is that the woman’s husband is rarely if ever identified, and he remains a cipher throughout later narratives about the photograph and the woman and children in the frame. This marginal identity is marked in a poem dedicated to the photograph: “During bitter years, when fear and anger broke / Men without work or property to shadows.” The shadow father continues the Biblical allegory as well: just as Joseph is not the real father in the Christ myth, so the Migrant Mother’s husband is displaced by the higher power of the public (and its agency of the state). And like Joseph, he is kept offstage, mentioned only to fulfill the same role of providing social legitimacy for the woman and her children. By keeping the literal father offstage, actual economic relations are also subordinated to a dispensation of grace from a higher source of power that either has or acquires transcendental status. And just as identification with the religious icon makes the viewer an agent for continuing God’s work in the world, so does the secular icon make the public response of the viewer an impetus to state action.
By representing a common fear that transcends class and gender and by defining the viewer as one who can marshal collective resources to combat fear localized by class, gender, and family relations, “Migrant Mother” allows one to acknowledge paralyzing fear at the same time that it activates an impulse to do something about it. This formal design reveals an implicit movement from the aestheticization of poverty to a rhetorical engagement with the audience, from a compelling portrait to compelling action by the audience on behalf of the subject depicted. For those who initially encountered this photograph in the 1930s, the “Migrant Mother” captured a profound, generalized sense of vulnerability while simultaneously providing a localized means for breaking its spell. With the passage of time and for subsequent generations, the relationship between vulnerability and the need to act has been reversed somewhat, providing a localized sense of fear (by situating the subject of the photograph within a specific time, place, and class), and a generalized sense of action (by casting the viewing public, in whatever incarnation it might appear, in the position of acting on behalf of those in such circumstances). In short, the photograph compresses into a single image a rationale for the social welfare state. This rationale is not programmatic, of course, but emotional: the photograph works primarily to activate and manage feelings of both vulnerability and obligation that are endemic to our liberal-democratic culture.
The iconic power of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is manifest in its continual and frequent reproduction since the 1930s as a symbolic representation of America’s communal faith in its capacity to confront and overcome despair and devastation. It is a visual commonplace that retains the aura of its original even as it is reproduced and divorced from its immediate cause and adapted to changing and different circumstances. More than just a representation of our past, it collapses past and present to create a structure of feeling. As Michael Denning notes, “its power lies largely in its iconic, non-narrative stasis, its sense of presence and being. The title seems an oxymoron, as if migrant and mother were contradictory; indeed, there is little sense of migration or movement in the photograph.” A fundamental property of still photography reinforces the idea that the image represents a condition rather than a moment in an unfolding story. The corresponding idea that completes the image dramatically is that any response to and change in that condition must come from outside the frame. Any subsequent narrative should be a story of how the condition was alleviated, not just for that woman, but for all those mired in poverty.
John Szarkowski once remarked that “one could do very interesting research about all of the ways that the Migrant Mother has been used; all of the ways that it has been doctored, painted over, made to look Spanish and Russian; and all the things it has been used to prove.” The photo’s legacy seems to have several, closely related articulations. The most obvious is its role as dominant image in collective memory of the Great Depression. This role is largely institutional: it is the issue of the school books, museum displays, postage stamps, didactic Web pages, and other media for organizing a national narrative for a popular audience. That story is buttressed by the second-order account of the photograph’s iconic status, as when the Art in America curricular package for teachers says “Migrant Mother, a portrayal of a homeless working family, is an ICON of the Great Depression.” Steady circulation of the photo and a recounting of its origin, nobility, effect, and stature not only keeps the image before the public but also maintains a structure of democratic representation. The relationships between the people in need, the people as a public, and the people as a state are mediated by the public practice of photojournalism, which in turn assists as it records the course of the nation through the vicissitudes of history.
Whether it is due more to the continued circulation of the photo or the implicit promise it offers about the political function of photojournalism, the icon seems to have become a template for images of want. In the 1970s, the image was appropriated by a Black Panther artist who rendered the photograph as a drawing that racialized the mother and her children, making them African American. The drawing emphasized race, an issue typically repressed in U.S. collective memory of the Great Depression, but the caption drew attention to the relationship between race and economic oppression, a problem that remained for African Americans after the initial successes of the civil rights movement began to fade into the background: “Poverty is a crime and our people are the victims.” The drawing thus conjured the structure of feeling that underscored the original photograph’s characterization of unwarranted victimage, albeit with regard to a different audience. This variation on the image extends across a range of ethnic groups and topics, as is evident from a Google search for “Migrant Mother.” The search turns up not only the original photo but also images of poor women with children who are struggling with poverty, addiction, and forced migration. The mothers range from Hispanic to Asian, sometimes their children are nursing (on the left breast, as the child in the iconic photo had done earlier) and sometimes they are just being held (as in the icon). The template also may be at work in a Time cover that places a woman carrying her child at the front of a migration of civilians during the war in Kosovo. [Offsite link: See this cover image on the Time website.] The relationship between an icon and a stock image may be hard to pin down, but as the captioning suggests, the lineage is there. It also may be reinforced by the circulation of a lesser known image taken during the same year (1936) of a nursing mother looking upward anxiously amidst a crowd in Estremadura, Spain. [Offsite link: See photo by David Seymour on the Corcoran Gallery website.] The single image of the iconic photograph both draws on older visual patterns and produces a logic of substitution and reinforcement, yet without losing its charismatic power.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the photograph was featured once again in a way that underscored its ideological significance, this time as a point of articulation between American liberal democracy and late capitalism. In 1978 the unnamed women in the photograph was identified in an Associated Press (AP) story published initially in the Los Angeles Times and then syndicated across the nation. She was Florence Thompson, a “75 year old Modesto woman.” The story, entitled “æCan’t Get a Penny’: Famed Photo’s Subject Feels She’s Exploited,” featured the original photograph, the cover of Roy Stryker’s edited volume In This Proud Land: America 1935û1943, and a picture of the now aging Thompson sitting in her trailer home adorned in glasses and what appears to be a polyester leisure suit. The story is not subtle in its contrast between the unnamed woman in the photograph and Thompson herself. The woman in the photograph is contemplative, apparently concerned about her children and family; Thompson is bitter, angry, alienated not so much by her past as a migrant worker but by the commodification of her image that completely divorced the woman in the photograph from the living Thompson. As she states in the story: “I didn’t get anything out of it. I wish she hadn’t of taken my picture.… She didn’t take ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” Admitting some pride in being the subject of a famous photograph, she concluded, “But what good’s it doing me?”
Here, of course, we see what happens when the living, named subject of the photograph speaks back in a way that undermines the structure of feeling that the photograph has conventionally evoked. In the original photograph the viewer is invited to identify with and act upon the victimage and despair of an anonymous migrant mother as a duty of family and community. Had Florence Thompson later expressed gratitude or marveled at how far the country had progressed or even hoped aloud that no one should have to go through such want and worry again, her voice would have echoed the photograph’s alignment of generalized sympathy and state action to alleviate the symptoms rather than the causes of inequity. When she speaks back and demands compensation, the aura of the original—or at least the presumed authenticity of the original structure of feeling—is destroyed, and underneath is revealed a harsh (and corrupting) world of alienated labor and commercial exploitation. The expectation created by the iconic image is that one should feel concern and commitment, a willingness to help those worthy of public support; instead, the AP article portrays greed and ingratitude.
This article is particularly troubling because it cuts in two directions. On the one hand, it questions the motives of Lange and those who subsequently have profited financially and otherwise from the photograph. On the other hand, it indicts Thompson, also characterized in the article as a “full-blooded Cherokee Indian,” who fails to understand her place in “America’s” collective memory, and who is made to appear willing to trade it all in for a few pieces of silver. In either case, the self-interested pursuit of gain at others’ expense contradicts the iconic bonding of individual need and collective action within an ethos of democratic community. If this exposé were to stick to the photograph it would make it difficult to preserve the significance of the image in U.S. public culture. The closing line of the article is poignantly ironic in this regard. Contrary to Thompson’s effort to exercise her property right to stop publication of the photo, “lawyers advised her it was not possible.” It is not so much a question of what is possible, however, but rather of what is appropriate. Once framed by the iconic image of the “Migrant Mother,” Florence Thompson’s liberalism is unseemly.
The story, however, does not end here. Five years later Thompson, now a victim of cancer, suffered a stroke that rendered her speechless. Once again the “Migrant Mother” appeared. This time, however, Thompson could not say the wrong thing, and she returned to her original subject position as a voiceless victim of a “paralyzing fear” with which all could identify. Her grown children, now voiced, explained that their mother lived on Social Security and that she had no medical insurance; she was a victim of circumstances. They thus pleaded for funds to help cover her medical costs. Over a period of several weeks she received $30,000 in contributions. Florence Thompson died shortly thereafter, but not before experiencing the impact of her own disembodied iconicity on U.S. public culture.
The story continues to circulate but not as the full story. It has been neatly edited to feature only the shift from poverty then to prosperity now, a change illustrated by a picture of mom with her three daughters from the photo, who now are beaming, healthy adults. [Offsite link: See the photograph on photographer Bill Ganzel’s website.] “Florence and her family came through the Depression and worked their way into the middle class,” we are told. What more does one need to know? Dad is still absent—not in the picture, and never mentioned—and perhaps that erasure schools the viewer not to ask too many questions. Yet despite the journey to Happyville, the second photo still contains a haunting echo of the original. Thompson does not look happy. Indeed, she looks beaten, with downcast eyes and a sagging body that is tilting sideways as if she might fall. More tellingly, her hands again speak volumes. The right hand is, after all those years, still touching her cheek in a gesture of self-consciousness or anxiety. The left hand, which in the original had been removed in the darkroom, now is holding on to her daughter’s arm as if for emotional support. Whereas her daughters look directly at the viewer with snapshot smiles, Thompson still is being offered for view. She remains passive, dependent on others for help, intimately tied to her family but an object rather than agent of public opinion. The narrative explains away this possible dissonance by saying that she felt more at home in the trailer than in the suburban tract house her children had provided her. Still a migrant, Thompson remains trapped in her past, unable to participate fully in the new culture of consumption. Her daughters have no such handicaps, however, and in any case the contradiction between individual self-assertion and collective identity has been artfully erased. Although Thompson and each of her three daughters in the picture now are named, she can never achieve full individuality, while their individual lives stand as narrative fulfillment of and substitute for the political program that undergirded their lives and came to be symbolized by her image.
The photo’s circulation as an icon also generates additional uses. As with any icon, it has been altered for comic effect, although less so than some. Frankly, there is little to exploit in that regard, and perhaps it is significant that the most widely available instances treat gender ironically. Some might conclude that use of the photograph in the 1996 Clinton campaign film “A Place Called America” was close to parody. The film’s organizational scheme is that of paging through a family photo album. The “Migrant Mother” appears and goes quickly by, as if one is looking at a shot of distant relatives or another family from the neighborhood. Too strong a connection would have made little sense during the roaring 1990s, but the almost subliminal presence at once situated the Clinton presidency within the tradition (and accomplishments) of the New Deal, while it constituted a visual (and perhaps only a visual) commitment to the continuation of the Democratic party’s program of social welfare. It is worth noting also that the image appeared amidst shots of military action. What otherwise would be an incongruous association provides a leveling of the hierarchy of national service. If antipoverty programs are as important as the army, then perhaps there was less reason to fault Clinton for his lack of a military record.
And the beat goes on. For a particularly weird example of how the icon of poverty can be used to promote prosperity, we note the January 1997 advertisement for an Arts and Entertainment Network show, “California and the Dream Seekers.” As a blonde woman drives a 1950s red convertible down Rodeo Drive, we see amidst the palm trees three sepia-tinged photos: one of a few guys using old movie cameras, one of a gold prospector and his mule, and the “Migrant Mother.” Perhaps she is just there to provide gender balance, but the brush with irony seems not to have bothered the ad writers. The accompanying text claims that “here [in California] they could escape their past and invent a new life,” and apparently we are to assume that the migrant mother made it, just as did the gold diggers before her, as did the early Hollywood cinema, which now provides the overwhelming validation of the story being told. It’s a good thing to chase dreams, at least if you do so in California. (This use of the photograph reminds us of the remark that the film Gandhi was a hit in Hollywood because its subject embodied their deepest commitments: he was thin and tan.) Marked by sepia tones as events thoroughly interned in the past—there are apparently no starving pea pickers today—the good life now is to be one’s individual pursuit of happiness, a life lived without collective obligations toward others.
Despite these examples of how the iconic image can be simultaneously relied on and diminished in use, the “Migrant Mother” still can be used for powerful statements on behalf of democracy’s promise of social and economic justice. The January 3, 2005, cover of the Nation is a case in point. The feature story is titled “Down and Out in Discount America.” The mother’s dress has been colorized blue and the woman is wearing a Wal-Mart jacket to which a nametag has been added. The designer’s description of his work reveals a clear sense of political artistry:
I think the inspiration is obvious: Wal-Mart is, in many ways, just a new Dustbowl for the workers in it, as it inspires a steady downward spiral of both shoppers and workers. Socially regressive institutions and circumstances still abound; it’s just that this one has better parking.
The “Migrant Mother” is a single, vivid image, and also a complex representation that draws together the reformist tradition of documentary photography, the pictorial conventions of religious iconography, and the interpellation of the public audience in the place of an absent father. Subsequent appropriations reflect varied structural and strategic interests, while they work with and reinforce the defining features of the composition. The image provides a powerful pattern of definition that then can be transposed to other times, social locales, and issues. It articulates a familiar yet complex structure of representation, emotional response, and collective action. It provides a stock resource for both advocacy on behalf of the dispossessed and affirmation of the society capable of meeting those needs. Thus, it outlines a set of conventions for public appeal that can in turn go through successive transpositions, yet it does so without cost to the aura of the original.
The icon’s power comes no more from its plasticity than it does from having a fixed meaning. Instead, the iconic photograph outlines a set of civic relationships in respect to fundamental tensions within liberal-democratic society. This is a society that has to honor both the common good and the individual pursuit of happiness, both the public representation of social reality and the mystification of economic relationships, both sacred images of the common people and a process of commodification. The “Migrant Mother” is only our first and perhaps least complicated example, but identifying the photograph’s several transcriptions and its range of appropriations already begins to trace the borders of the genre. That outline becomes clearer when we turn to the next image in our visual archive of collective memory.