Apr 28 2010

Liveblogging my busy morning

Listening to NPR. Piece on Depression photographer Dorothea Lange. Lange expert describes the so-called “Destitute Mother” photograph as iconic in that the woman pictured clearly exhibits anxiety about being dirt-poor, but is also “a very beautiful woman.”

The subject’s actual identity (Florence Thompson, age 32; had just sold the tires off her car to buy food so her kids wouldn’t have to eat frozen dead birds) is obscured by time and the American Artocracy’s mandate to de-dimensionalize women. Thanks to the universal plucky American spirit Thompson still managed to be hot enough enough to become the face of the Great Depression.


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  1. jaded

    Of course. Misery is attractive. Remember Scarlett O’Hara while she was poor? Never looked prettier to me *snark*

    So, according to darling patriarchy I’m supposed to look at her face and forget her condition? Nothing pleases my heathen feminist heart more.

  2. Sarah

    Darnit, Oregon’s version of NPR had a different story on this a.m. — twas Viagra for sex offenders. Which is hilarious.

    Moving on, our society only ever really feels empathy for the suffering of beautiful people. Ugly people, I suppose, deserve it.

  3. Jezebella

    Wiki’s bio of Florence Owens Thompson is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson

    Documentary photography of the oppressed is always a double-edged sword: are they being colonized and exploited for the purpose of the photographer, or is the photographer doing a service by bringing the plight of oppression out into the light and showing others? It always helps the cause if the oppressed are good-looking women and cherubic children.

  4. Vibrating_Liz

    Starvation makes women thin and therefore beautiful. We all know that,

  5. yttik

    Beauty in women is often viewed as vulnerability. If this woman had been photographed with a knife in her hand and looked as if she were prepared to feed herself by any means necessary, she would have been seen as an ugly shrew, an angry old hag. The camera caught her in a moment of vulnerability, resigned, anxious, which is viewed as quite beautiful in women, because it means you have no power.

  6. Comrade PhysioProf

    If she weren’t “a very beautiful woman”, then we ought to have been indifferent to her suffering and destitution?

  7. allhellsloose

    I look more at the hidden faces of the children. That says to me more about the desperate and shameful state they are in. It’s an iconic view of poverty and to lighten it by describing Florence as ‘a very beautiful woman’ demeans the message. Poverty enriches no one.

  8. Hector B.

    I see just two years ago, NPR interviewed another author of a book studying Lange’s photographs. Perhaps that field has been plowed so fine that “Hott Chix Pix” was the only angle left for an author to exploit.

  9. Cycles

    I’ll take it a step further and say she’s not beautiful by any generally accepted standards for hot chicks. If she had suddenly time-traveled to 2010, if her image hadn’t become the icon of an era that we all know, she would be ridiculed and ostracized, or ignored, shuffled into the margins. Calling her beautiful is an act of patronizing crumb-throwing.

    Perhaps the Lange expert meant that this image captures a person who is dealing with extremely bad circumstances, and there’s beauty in her endurance. Wait, what? Her suffering is evident in the photo, and if some people think such a thing is beautiful, that’s fucked up.

  10. Natalia

    Beauty does not necessarily reflect physical attractiveness. Beauty does not necessarily exist for enjoyment either. Beauty can shock and horrify, sometimes.

  11. Jill

    Beauty can shock and horrify, sometimes.

    At which point it becomes something what ain’t beauty. “Horror” maybe.

  12. Lisa

    @yttik: It’s interesting to note that this photograph was posed. When Lange was shooting the family, she had attempted to capture them informally as a photojournalist, but the composition wasn’t working. So, she posed the mother and children and this is the resulting photograph. It certainly captures Florence’s desperation and vulnerability, and I was surprised to learn the image wasn’t candid. Sadly, I don’t believe Lange paid the family for modeling for her.

  13. Natalia

    I would argue that it depends. Even if you look at something fairly neutral – like, say, the expression on the face of a particular painting of the Virgin by Bronzino (I harp on about him quite a bit, I hope that can be excused). It’s a face that’s equal parts full of terror and courage. I would argue that it is extremely beautiful. But not in the way that personally gives me the warm fuzzies. Goosebumps, maybe.

  14. Melanie

    Lange was working for the government at the time, and her job was to photograph the effects of the Depression. The woman in the photo and her children maintained that Lange lied about them selling their tires (they had stopped in a camp to fix a flat tire, I believe, and they drove off later with wheels intact). Thompson said Lange never interviewed her at all and assured her the photos would never be made public. The family was very ashamed when the picture and the story became famous.

  15. Mary Tracy9

    Case example of reductionism and objectification, with the sole purpose of abdication of social responsibility.

    (how’s that for long words? have I impressed the teacher?)

  16. Orange

    What? She’s not beautiful. She needs Botox! Look at that furrowed, stressed brow. A little Botox would make her *look* less worried about her family’s destitution. And isn’t that what’s important, that a woman not look stressful?

  17. Linda Atkins

    Yeah, I heard that on the radio this morning and was irked by that, too.

  18. Linda Atkins

    Oh, another thing: Steve Inskeep and the author of this book about Lange were discussing how she would go off for many weeks at a time to take pictures, and her husband, because he was also her “partner,” whatever that may mean in this context, went with her. “Hmm,” asked Steve, and I’m paraphrasing, but not much, “Who took care of her children while she was gone?” Not theirs, hers.

    And then I caught something about how, to this day, her children resent her for her parenting failures. They don’t resent their father, who didn’t appear to have any pressing reason to be away but was away nonetheless; they resent only their mother, who did have an actual reason to be away.

    (Admittedly, they left the children in foster care when they were gone; I’d be peeved about that, too, but it would be nice if both parents shared the blame in this case.)

  19. Jezebella

    I suspect “beautiful” is meant here as the only possibly compliment one can give a woman’s appearance, as opposed to meaning “P2K compliant”. How else can one compliment a woman other than to call her beautiful, right?

  20. polly

    On a side note, there was apparently a lot of colour photography of the depression that we never usually get to see. Because black and white looks so much more arty/intense.

    The picture is very obviously composed to me, (I’m no art historian but I can spot that triangular thingy and children don’t do that naturally) and yes it does have a classical art madonna-ish “beautiful” quality from that point of view. But this is what is WRONG WRONG WRONG with “arty”/”creative” people. They think everything is just one big marvellous image, stuff reality. Poverty it’s so romantic! so now! so beautiful. Like the fashion collection themed round homelessness.


    I think the beautiful comment was surely meant as – “well she was starving, but you know what it could have been worse, she could have been ugly!”

  21. jael

    photographs lie: they capture a single moment and present it as truth, but devoid of context the image means only what we say it means. photography though presents itself as truth, because it’s a capture of what actually happened.

    poverty isn’t so much attractive, than striking. it’s a powerful image when you’re not used to it; and sanitised though a photo, so you can’t smell it, can’t feel it in your hair, hear it it becomes palatable, something we can point to and say – yes, that’s poverty. ‘those poor children in that foreign country’ are profoundly moving; their smiles speak to us, their eyes are plaintive. but we don’t smell their unwashed bodies; see the lice; the scabs under their clothes. But these profound children, whose eyes speak volumes? hell, we’ll send ’em money – cause they’re so darn cute. but they horrify us if we ever come into contract with us – when they beg; grab at us; follow us.

    as yttk said, thompson is ‘beautiful’ because of this lie; because we see just this moment and as say that’s the truth. and as jez says, because it’s the only way we know how to compliment a woman.

    the meaning of langes photos (and photojournalism generally, i think) has become (sadly) less about the people and move about the visceral response they produce in us (the one that gets me every time is the starving child being stalked by a vulture in i think it was ethopia? during a famine in the 80’s). the stories though are infinitely fascinating; putting the image in context (the tire story) gives is so much more meaning.

  22. smmo

    This picture is so painful to look at, and I’d agree with allhell that the children are at least as affecting as the mother. The anguish of a parent with suffering children is the worst.

    But who cares about all that. She’s been deemed beautiful by a Kulture Dewd! Lucky Lucky Girl!

    @Natalia Even if you look at something fairly neutral – like, say, the expression on the face of a particular painting of the Virgin by Bronzino

    (boggle) The Virgin? Neutral? Um, OK.

    You did notice that the Lange expert didn’t say it was a beautiful photograph but that the subject was a beautiful woman, right?

  23. FemDoc

    This reminds me of the famous Nat Geo cover with the green-eyed Afghan woman. I saw desperation in a war-zone; most of Dude nation saw a hot chick. Of course, there was a follow up story to find her, but THAT picture didn’t make the cover, as she had transformed into a heavy-set, wrinkled, “war hag”.

  24. smmo

    @FemDoc Yes, and the fact that she had those green eyes. Suffering people with brown eyes are boring. There are, like, so many of them!

  25. Anastasia

    The aestheticization of suffering and oppression transforms it into an object to be enjoyed. The viewer is offered a comfortable, cathartic encounter with the other. The image presents a controlled, authorized, and here pleasing version of otherness. It has at least the potential to function as a form of representation and thus domination.

  26. Hector B.

    She’s been deemed beautiful by a Kulture Dewd!

    I note from her sketch bio, that the Kulture Dewd, Linda Gordon, is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Among her many publications are Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America and Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston 1880–1960.

  27. Comrade Svilova

    In a way, perhaps it seems encouraging that a woman who looks more like a “real woman” is deemed attractive, nay, beautiful. However, that statement itself raises questions about what a “real” woman is, who gets to decide which women are “real” and by what criteria, why physical beauty is even seen as such a great thing to aspire to, and also who gets to decide what “beautiful” means.

    And that’s without even considering what everyone else has pointed out above: that the photo is ultimately of a woman who was going through an incredibly difficult time, and it was posed (contrived) to convey a (possibly exploitative) sense of her pain.

    Under the surface of “beauty” are so many knotty questions. It can’t be reduced to something so seemingly simple as “beauty.”

  28. Citizen Taqueau

    FemDoc, you said it — I was always really creeped out by the “erotic mystery” read into the face of an angry, terrified refugee by the photographer (who saw a suffering child and could only think about how PRETTY she was) and thousands of viewers. Sharbat Gula’s suffering was exoticized and eroticized to such an extent that when America went to war against Afghanistan in 2002, all National Geographic could think about was to find her, and document her anger and suffering all over again. It is the narrative of pornography. A beautiful woman in pain is even more beautiful and must have that pain sucked up and savored by privileged viewers again and again. From the National Geographic web article describing the return of photographers to Afghanistan: “It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist.” My ghod. Was this written in the 1880s?

  29. TwissB

    I assume that the Kulture Dewd reference was to the dreadful Steve Inskeep, honors graduate of the Joe Biden Academy of Crass Public Elocution, where he was voted Guy Most Likely to Become a F-ing Big Deal in Broadcasting.

  30. Natalia

    (boggle) The Virgin? Neutral? Um, OK.

    I wasn’t aware that there was lots of debate as to whether or not the High Renaissance painters strove to present the Virgin as beautiful, but I’m no art historian.

    You did notice that the Lange expert didn’t say it was a beautiful photograph but that the subject was a beautiful woman, right?

    And she is correct. The subject is very beautiful. Not “hot.” There isn’t even that mixture of hot and beautiful that these photographs sometimes manage to capture. It’s a striking photograph of a striking woman. What it means for its context – poverty and suffering and worry – is a double-edged sword. Sometimes – a beautiful image lends dignity, a sense of respect, even a piousness. Sometimes it’s merely used to gloss over the fact that the suffering is taking place in the first place. Depends on who’s looking, I would argue.

  31. speedbudget

    I love when mansplanations are so earnest that they entirely miss the mark.

  32. Historiann

    Blamers–I think you’ve got this one mostly wrong. I heard the interview with Linda Gordon, the author of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, and I think that Gordon would agree with you on your points about the aestheticization of suffering. Her point was that Lange was above all a portrait photographer, and that her stunning photo of Florence Thompson was carefully staged to elicit the sympathy of the viewer. And yes, Thompson’s even features and youthful but careworn face were a part of that. In the interview, she then goes on to comment about how this image has been put to some very disturbing (and even commercial) uses, such as in a perfume ad (!) Please listen to the interview or read a little bit about the book before you make up your minds.

    Hector B. is correct that Gordon is a reknowned feminist historian, but he’s incorrect that she’s at UW. She’s at NYU, and is the author of many prizewinning feminist books going back 35 years.

  33. Jill

    Hey Historiann,

    My post is intended not to skewer good old Linda Gordon, but to throw a ray of light on the depth of entrenchitude of the beauty mandate within oppression culture. In other words, even a woman without a hope in the world can be described as “beautiful”, as though such a description actually says something about her, rather than about the voyeur who voyeurs her.

    Gordon, who happened to toss off that “very beautiful woman” phrase in the middle of her larger discourse, is e pluribus unum when it comes to people who happen to toss off beautiful woman phrases in the middle of larger discourses every day. Beauty, in the context of women’s appearance, is part of a patriarchal ideology that has evolved to erase women’s humanity.

    In a post-patriarchal society one would hope for a bit more dissonance between the ideas of “beauty” and “destitute motherhood.”

  34. Notorious Ph.D.

    And this is the great tragedy of poverty: that it makes women less hot than they otherwise could be.

  35. Historiann

    Jill–thanks for your response. I didn’t hear the exchange the way you do, but that’s probably because I’m familiar with Gordon’s body of work and can guess that that’s not what she meant to imply. (We also don’t know to what extent the interview was edited–she might have gone on to explore that point more in terms you might appreciate after noting Thompson’s beauty. NPR shaped this interview at least as much as Lange staged her photos of people during the Depression.)

    So, I don’t hear Gordon praising Lange’s staging of the photograph of Florence Thompson. I think she’s just describing its power and resonance through the years, which is (as you note) because of the fetishization of female beauty.

    And Notorious: tee-hee. Poverty is so NOT hot, isn’t it?

  36. Hector B.

    So should the headline read something like “Feminist historian still in patriarchy’s thrall”?

    he’s incorrect that she’s at UW. She’s at NYU

    Foolishly I believed the U Wis Press website. Luckily Aahz’s Law worked as expected, here in the comments.


    Likely, reluctance to admit that Gordon had left the building was behind their error.

  37. Alexa

    I agree with comrade S, the word ‘beauty’ has knotty connotations. At best it means ‘patriarchy approved’ when said by a man or woman; also meaning ‘you look good for your age’; ‘you shouldn’t look this good but you do’. At worst and in cases where we’re also meant to pity the woman, the word is tied irrevocably to fuckability. She’s in a bad place but wank fodder or what? What’s a woman so worthy of being fucked doing in that scene?

  38. Linda Atkins

    smmo, it was actually not a kulture dewd who called her beautiful; it was her biographer, who is a woman.

  39. Linda Atkins

    Oops, pardon my didn’t-read-all-the-other-comments-first post.

  40. Kiuku

    I hate photographs. I hate hte whole idea behind photographs. Here, in my mind I replace this image with an image of a poor man, even though he probably wouldn’t have three kids hiding behind him. But lets’ just say this is a poor man, the discussion would be you know the injustice or what went wrong, or his suffering..definitely not his beauty. No one feels bad when they see pictures of women suffering from war..it’s the highlight. It’s like a big cathartic release, and then when the women are suffering, that’s the highlight of the show. Men feel better than. relieved. the women are suffering. even if they have to kill eachother to do it.

  41. Kiuku

    it’s like, the message is women can be beautiful even in dire circumstances. so not all is lost, guys. ;)

  42. yttik

    The problem is there really is no other word to use for women that communicates the intent we want. We are forced to use the word beauty to try and speak to beauty we might see on the inside, strength, grace, a sense of humor, whatever you find admirable. The patriarchy has the word beauty held hostage because it’s meaning is related to what’s on the outside. And what is on the outside, patriarchal compliance, is the most important thing. Ask any young girl who has been told, “it’s okay dear, you’re beautiful on the inside.” She knows immediately this is not a desirable definition of beauty and she is somehow lacking.

  43. shopstewardess

    yttik: yes, and then it’s devastating again for a young girl who has been told “it’s not your looks that count, it’s your personality” when she “fails” at the personality thing too.

    “Fail” in quotes because, looking back, I am so grateful that those teenage boys weren’t interested, and I could get on with being educated in the knowledge that I would need to make my own way in the world, not rely on a man.

  44. Solniger

    I agree with what yttik said in the first comment.

    I didn’t hear the NPR discussion but there is a similar thing brewing on the NYT website which has an article about Simone de Beauvoir titled ‘Being and Frumpiness’. There are some comments there that reflect similar sentiments as the blamers.


    I am undecided on the subject. It is certainly true that ‘beauty’ has become synonymous with attractiveness, especially attactiveness to the lowest common denominator amongst heterosexual men. However, it is possible for people to be beautiful outside of that context and for that beauty to be captured in a photograph. Given the cultural pervasiveness of the patriarchy, it is uncertain how often that beauty gets conveyed in art.

    That photograph in particular reminds me of a conversation I was having with two friends one drunk saturday night. My attractive, gay, blonde, male friend asked me why all the poor people in photographs from India and Africa looked so ‘ugly’; at which point my other friend, a tall body-dysmorphia inflicted white female, chimed in that she wondered the same thing. After I recovered from my shock, I commented on the lack of nutrition, the diseases and how the harshness of life just grinds them down. They didn’t look convinced or satisfied with that explanation. Upon thinking more about that conversation I realised that they, having never seen real poverty, had nothing to compare those photographs to but Hollywood! No wonder their perceptions were skewed!


  45. shopstewardess

    And perhaps I had better point out that I am aware of the levels of privilege involved in my last statement, even if beauty hasn’t been one of them – if beauty is a privilege at all.

  46. smmo

    @Natalia It’s a striking photograph of a striking woman. What it means for its context – poverty and suffering and worry – is a double-edged sword.

    Single-edged. The fucking Depression, your children starving in front of you, hopelessness. This is not nuance. This is suffering, not a damn beautiful thing about it.

    I mean, you really want to play that game? Because it is a game. Let’s admire how the holes on the child’s garment echo some other cultural artifact. Let’s wonder how we can recreate the matted hair with styling product. No shelter gives these people a preternaturally modern suntanned appearance. Sex-ay.

  47. Comrade Svilova

    At best it means ‘patriarchy approved’ when said by a man or woman; also meaning ‘you look good for your age’; ‘you shouldn’t look this good but you do’.

    That final sense is the one that is most striking to me, given the context of the photograph and the times. It seems that people are often particularly surprised when poor people, or minority women, or some other “Other” displays “beauty.”

  48. Natalia

    Single-edged. The fucking Depression, your children starving in front of you, hopelessness. This is not nuance. This is suffering, not a damn beautiful thing about it.

    I’m talking about what it means for us as viewers. No matter how literal, it can mean different things.

    Think about it this way: I have a very beautiful picture of my great uncle while he was on leave. Shortly before he went off to fight and was never heard from again. He was just 19. The picture is absolutely stunning. Strangers, who don’t know the context, will comment on it and say it takes their breath away. And the context around it ruined lives. This is beside the little fact of his life ending (we were able to recently figure out just what mass grave he is buried in – he was officially listed as MIA for decades). And there are many different ways to respond to what’s going on in the picture. Even my grandmother – this is her beloved brother she’s talking about now – will go on about how beautiful he looks. The tragedy of WWII doesn’t cancel out what’s going on in the picture – it runs parallel to it.

    I mean, you really want to play that game? Because it is a game. Let’s admire how the holes on the child’s garment echo some other cultural artifact. Let’s wonder how we can recreate the matted hair with styling product. No shelter gives these people a preternaturally modern suntanned appearance. Sex-ay.

    Nobody has immediate context for an image unless they were actually there. An image is an image. I don’t conflate beauty with sexiness, however (not always, anyway, and certainly not within the context of this image), and I’d advise anyone else to do the same.

  49. FemDoc

    We COULD try interpreting it this way: even being conventionally beautiful does not protect you or your loved ones from poverty or misfortune, so the pursuit of “beauty” is, essentially, a huge waste of time. How’s THAT for in-your-face? “Hey, ladies…despite what you’ve been told all your life, being a beautiful woman won’t deliver you from hardship and poverty.” No knight on a white horse HERE. The picture could be a war-cry for the revolution. Instead of “despite her poverty, this woman is beautiful,” we say, “despite her conventional beauty, this woman is fucking poor.”

    Of course, nowadays we’d just subject her to a “makeover”, which, as we know, cures not only poverty, but poor self-esteem, cancer, and nagging relatives who think they know what’s best for you and who are sick of looking at your greys and outdated wardrobe.

    Beauty-compliance has never guaranteed a woman anything, except a thinner wallet and less funds to use for changes that could REALLY count.

  50. Jezebella

    There are no guarantees to “beauty”-compliance, but there are certain rewards, relatively speaking, like better jobs, more raises, and higher income, at least in American culture. “Beauty” is associated with goodness, virtue, and higher intelligence in America (higher than “ugly” people, anyway).

  51. FemDoc

    Yes, Jezebella, the rewards are there as long as the ones in charge continue to agree to give them out.

  52. Azundris

    Sol niger, you’re using “Hollywood” as a metonym for the industry, yes? Because in Hollywood-the-city you can most certainly bump into those “ugly” people.

    FemDoc, omigawd I love when there’s a catchy and correct one-liner to answer one of the big lies of the P, thanks!

  53. Jezebella

    FemDoc, of course there’s no question about who’s in charge of doling out the crumbs. The crumbs can help feed one’s family, and a woman’s gotta take ’em where she can get ’em.

  54. FemDoc

    I agree, Jezebella. I’m not blaming the women who have to do what is necessary for survival–you know who I blame!

  55. Solniger

    yes Azundris I did mean the Hollywood entertainment industry.

  56. ew_nc

    Something about these comments is bothering me. I think it comes from the assumptions that poverty is nothing but suffering. I’ve been poverty-stricken, to the point of being homeless. It sucked donkey-dung, but it wasn’t all misery. I tried to do the best I could with what I had. I still had hope of that things would improve. While it sucked to be looked down on by the privileged, it also sucked to be pitied by so-called do-gooders. What I needed at the time was to be seen as a person with potential who had had some bad things happen and now needed a hand-up. We don’t really know the context of Florence’s life, so to say she was suffering just because she was poor isn’t fair. She probably still had hope of a better life. It bothers me that her family feels ashamed of that photograph. It is only a moment in time, not her whole life.
    I’m rambling here, but I just wanted to caution the Blamerariat to not make assumptions about a person’s life based on their poverty status. That’s the job of the Patriarchy, which as always gets the blame.

  57. bradybunchhater

    “Something about these comments is bothering me. I think it comes from the assumptions that poverty is nothing but suffering.”

    The reader was supposed to place her as an “Oakie” or a displaced tennant farmer. As a group during the depression, these people were considered hopeless, unskilled, lawless, and ignorant. The women in these groups often had it the worst in terms of public opinion because they were stuck caring for large groups of children and weren’t supposed to be good for even hard labor, which their husbands and sons could do. Photos like these were an attempt to humanize the “Oakie” group, but it is still problematic for the reasons already stated.

    I also think it is interesting to note that when these photographs were taken and distributed, many artists released them with captions. The intent was to control the way that the viewer “read” the photos. This was in part a reaction to abstract art, which had come into vogue before the depression. The thought was that the realism of the photograph and the caption would make the art serve a concrete social purpose in part because it would be universally understandable. However this too is problematic because the purpose of the photo was to be determined by the artist, sometimes before it was taken. As was previously stated, this photo was posed and a story was fabricated about this woman in order to control how “she” would be read. I know that there were plenty of good intentions behind social realism, but I can never get past the arrogance of the assumptions behind an art that relied so heavily on stereotype verging on myth (eg. the “big businessman”, the “poor wife”, the “hardworking farmer”) and yet called itself “realism”

    Also, I totally agree that her vulnerability is designed to give her appeal. I think that some of this is human nature. The closest thing to a universal moral is “don’t harm someone who is harmless to you”, and vulnerability is a way of coming off as harmless. I think it speaks to the maliciousness of the patriarchy that when women are vulnerable it is seen not as a sign of their humanity, but as a sign that now would be a good time to start raping.

  58. Jezebella

    It’s important to understand the context here – Lange and others were working on assignment for the WPA to document the results of the Depression. Okies (for Oklahoma, hence not “Oakie”) were reviled and so these photographs were meant to put a human face on the people suffering from homelessness and displacement. The photos were used as propaganda by the government, so let’s not blame the artists entirely for the intention of the photos. The photograph’s copyright reverted to the U.S. government and were used without reference to the photographers’ intentions. The idea of using documentary photography to humanize the poor to gain sympathy for their suffering is not entirely without merit. Jacob Riis’ photos of children working in factories were hugely important in passing child labor laws, for example.

  59. bradybunchhater

    I agree Jezebella (thanks for the correction). Creating jobs for artists wasn’t a bad choice for the government to make at that time, I just don’t particularly like the choice of social realism over other styles/ideologies, especially because it (social realism) so easily becomes controlling of and disconnected from its subject. Anything that isn’t sympathetic or doesn’t fit gets left out.

  60. polly

    I think those who say “It’s important to understand the context” are missing the point that it’s the context that’s the problem.

    The most famous piece of photo journalism I can think of – the picture of the vietnamese children who’d just been napalmed – was a brilliant picture, yes, but it was also truthful and conveyed a visceral horror. You will have seen that image – wouldn’t see it being used in advertising for perfume. It’s not a pleasant image to look at, ever, no matter how many times you see it.

    There’s a real problem with making ugly things ‘beautiful’. You allow the viewer to distance themselves and look only at the image.

    This isn’t so much a matter of blaming the artist, as seeing the problems inherent in how mass media reinterpret things. And in this case the particular problem is that a woman is never allowed to be just a suffering person, she must still be a WOMAN, with all that entails.

  61. speedbudget

    Let’s not forget too that along with the Depression, the Okies were suffering through the Dust Bowl. It was heaps upon heaps of trouble.

    /history pedant

  62. polly

    ew-nc – I’m glad you found poverty so life affirming, however to quote somebody or other “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and rich is better”.

    (yes it was probably a misogynist dude)

  63. polly

    Oh no apparently it was Sophie Tucker.

  64. yttik

    She was dealing with the depression, the dust bowl, and poverty. But the parts of the story you can’t see in the photo were the men in her life and the toll they took on her. I think at the time of the photo she had 7 children but she went on to have more. Her first husband died, there was a wealthy father to one of her kids who sent her fleeing back across the country in fear. Each encounter with the men in her life leaves her worse off then she was before. There’s no child support, no fathers stepping forward, no men sticking around to help.

    Men create poverty. That sounds harsh, but it’s true even today. That’s why we work so hard to prevent teen pregnancy, to make sure women have access to birth control, and to try and help girls aim for something more. Women have to be taught self defense against poverty, because it seldom ends with white picket fences and romance, even in the best of times.

  65. ew_nc

    “Women have to be taught self defense against poverty”

    That’s friggin’ brilliant. Seriously.

  66. Jezebella

    Polly, no, YOU are missing my point. Without context, it’s easy to blame Dorothea Lange for exploiting one woman in dire straits and be like “Oh, the *artist* is at fault here.”

    If you don’t know WHY the picture was made, and how it was used, and therefore why you are even looking at it right now, you are missing most of the story. The CONTEXT is the whole fucking story of the Depression, the WPA, the Dust Bowl, and the external forces that caused Florence Owens Thompson to be where she was at the time. All of which we may be inclined to subsume under the context of “patriarchy.”

    If you have something to say about my post, say it to me, ma’am, don’t pull that passive voice “those who say…” crap. It’s annoying as hell.

  67. vitaminC

    @ Linda Atkins

    Her husband, Paul Taylor, was an econ professor who interviewed people and verbally documented the Depression alongside Lange. So he was her partner in their joint effort. There’s even a documentary photo/writing award named after them, the Taylor Lange Prize. Wonder why he gets top billing? Well, it’s probably better not to ask.


  68. enough_is_enough

    Kiuku @ 10:53 am : I am with you on this point. If it were a man sitting there the media would be discussing the injustices in that society.

  69. JBT

    What bothers me about this photograph is the way in which the tropes of patriarchy are used to render the subject. Patriarchy often works so subliminally that the artist probably did not think about how she posed the subject, let alone why – it just seemed right. She says that she wanted to capture vulnerability, but seemed to forget that this is the only way in which women are ever portrayed (unless the action in which women are photographed is trivialized).

    To wit, the subject appears ungrounded: staring off into the distance, at a complete loss and is in no sense in control of her circumstances. She engages in self-touch, nearly occluding her mouth, but gently – for women are not allowed to grasp firmly or to speak. She does not appear to be protecting the children; on the contrary, they seem to be holding her up, or maybe it’s a mutual pact. Certainly, she does not contain or restrain them. The photograph shouts “powerless!” as do nearly all portrayals of the female in media.

    Don’t believe me? Contrast it with the image of an Okie male with child:


    He contains the child completely, has a “what, me worry?” look upon his face and is clearly grounded within the scenery. Whatever the shittiness of his circumstances, he does not appear vulnerable in any way and his hands are active, not covering his face in an approximation of the peek-a-boo. He is absolutely the adult here.

    Lange completely rendered a stereotypical presentation of what it means to be a woman in this society, and sadly, things haven’t changed a bit. Advertising is a particularly fertile ground for seeing these patriarchal tropes used over and over in the portrayal of women. The women are canted into vulnerable presentation with contorted posture and bared necks, they are rendered vulnerable by their lack of focus, and they are presented as merely framing items in their surroundings, never controlling. Often their hands are placed over their mouths and they are curled in upon themselves, in a near fetal position. Do we even have to say “infantilization?” All of these tropes appear very clear to me in the Lange photograph.

  70. Jezebella

    1. Did Lange put that look on Ms. Thompson’s face? I don’t think so. Perhaps the male Okie had that attitude because of, I don’t know, male privilege or bravado or a little of both? And the woman looks worried because, oh, she’s a woman and she’s worried? These are not models playing make-believe.

    2. Lange shot a number of photos of this family (do a GIS to see some), but this is the image that has been deemed “iconic”. The others don’t quite meet the same standards JBT describes. This particular one has been chosen by male photo editors and curators because it pleases them more than the others. Does this make Lange a liar or a patsy? No. There is truth in the photograph, but it is also a convenient truth. This makes the photo no less truthy, and the other less popular Lange photos no MORE truthy.

    3. This image rings familiar and true to most viewers because it repeats the tropes of Virgin and Child imagery which pretty much all Westerners are familiar with. People are drawn to and comforted by the familiar, and this is familiar.

  71. polly

    Jezebella, I think more than one person has mentioned context. Jael, Natalia and Solniger for example.

  72. JBT

    I don’t think that Lange is a liar or a patsy, but that patriarchy works more deeply in our visual landscape and in our artistic imaginations than we realize. Actually, I do think that Lange put that look on the model’s face, coaching her as she snapped; I do not believe that it is photography verite at all, else it would not be seen as “iconic.” Here is a similar expression from a woman in a Viagra ad:


    This expression is used over and over in the portrayal of women. Why? Most of the mother-and-child tradition also paints women as very passive, as what Carol Tavris describes as “the woman as flowerpot” motif, and frequently reduces the woman to the level of the child.

    I understand the historical situation and that the subject was not what she was portrayed to be, but I also see the bare face of patriarchy here, as I do everywhere. Not only is it familiar, it is almost all we ever see. This does not mean that I don’t appreciate Lange’s photographs or that I don’t second any woman’s attempt to make it as an artist (or as anything else) in the male world. We need new icons.

  73. TwissB

    Well said, Jezebella.

    By the way, I am beginning to think that “truthy” may be rightly becoming a real word.

  74. enough_is_enough

    Well, I am guessing there were times the man was looking worried and at some point in time the woman being was showing strength…so either those pictures were not taken or were not shown.

  75. speedbudget

    I like that JBT linked a similar photo of a male. Isn’t it interested that the man is engaging us, looking straight at the camera, while the woman is looking away? Who is the subject and who the object here?

    I’m not trying to say that Lange had anything to do with “purposefully” posing her such. It’s just interesting that these two pictures contrast in such a way. The other interesting contrast is that you can see the man’s surroundings, see him in relationship to his world, and you only get a little bit of canvas backdrop on the woman. She is totally separated, ethereal, more Madonna-like in this sense, more otherworldly.

    And I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s true. How many photos of women exist in which they are actors? Unless it’s native women working in fields or some such.

  76. speedbudget

    Dangit. *Isn’t it interesting

  77. Kiuku

    Yttik, I like your point, about men creating poverty. They have to have hierarchy. The system is designed so women have to go through men to get money..women can’t even get acknowledgement for work they’ve done. I go and read the history of anything, and it’s just a bunch of men, and I know damn well better, and so do other people, but it’s still just a bunch of men’s names..everywhere. They wonder why there is suffering in “the world.” In order to control women, men have to be violent, and in order to control resources, they have to have a scarcity/violence model. In that model, women cannot control resources.

    Now we have a job based model, and the men have made it clear that no one can own land anymore, because god forbid women start owning property.

  78. Kiuku

    besides ritual warfare, and it really is ritual if you’ve seen how dumb wars were in the past. They would call it strategy, but they’d line eachother up, basically and march into eachother with sharp objects. Men didn’t even invent the sharp objects originally. I’m almost convinced, by studying males of all species, that males are biologically incapable of making anything.

    Besides the violence and hierarchy and play-acting (pretending to do/mean things) on a global scale, they create povery by not giving a shit about anything. They just to have sex, continually, eat and sleep and take a crap. They eat so much. and htey are not industrious. They don’t want to cultivate their surroundings, nor plan for the future. They just want to have sex, eat, and sleep. And they eat so much food.

  79. FemDoc

    JBT–interesting pic of a woman from a Viagra ad! I wonder why she has such a destitute look–because her man can’t get it up, or because some well-meaning, patriarchal doc gave her man Viagra without consulting her on her preference (or non-preference) for continued sexual activity in the relationship. Either way, it’s strange how “iconic” it is for women to look like we’re falling to pieces over everything from poverty to lack of satisfying sex. If that were true, civilization as we know it would have come to a standstill long ago, as women have always found ways to get it together and drive on despite the wars, rape, and poverty men so like to throw at us and our children.

  80. Kiuku

    when marriage wasn’t 50/50:


    It’s strange seeing the words “non wage earning” spouse.

  81. auntieintellectual

    Dorothea Lange is following me around. Among other things, I was looking this morning at this children’s book;
    which was some of the most outstanding history for children that I’ve seen. Better blamers than I will more easily see its faults, but as a narrative about how art changed public policy, it is a standout.

  82. JBT

    I don’t think I expressed myself very well. I did not mean to be hyper-critical of Lange (whom I admire) but to show that, in patriarchy, the image of Woman is distilled in such a way that passivity, disconnection and concern without control can seem ‘right’ to us. Photographers, et al, render women in these poses unthinkingly, and that’s what scares me about it. When it comes to patriarchy, I don’t believe that “a cigar is just a cigar.”

    Worse, in some respects, is that this photograph reminds me of pictures of the Noble Savage and other, so-called, “primitives.” I know this is not what Lange meant to convey, but there is a striking similarity. Perhaps it has to do with the objectification involved in rendering something ‘artistically,’ particularly in the way photography does it:



    These images have something almost pornographic about them, as though they have distilled the essence of the ‘primitive’ and captured that essence entire. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that advances in photographic technology were spurred by porn.

    I’m no artist, but is there a way to photograph objectification in its essence, rather than objectify through photography?

  83. Linda Atkins

    Thank you for the background info on Lange’s husband, vitaminC.

  84. vitaminC

    No prob. Although, in terms of historical/cultural impact, you’re probably right to question his designation as a partner in the endeavor. After all, who ever heard of or read his work? Not too many people, I’d imagine. Lange, on the other hand, has had a huge impact through her photographs.

    On the other hand, it’s worth hating the two if only for the fact that they spawned the atrocious ripoff book You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell–complete with made-up quotes! Observe:


  85. vitaminC

    I just realized I have three hands. Probably shoulda stopped while I was a head.

  86. kate

    This photograph and many others has resonated with me for years. By my early twenties I had three children and a man who wouldn’t work. I know what dire poverty is, still to this, as I’ve said many times here before.

    The photograph speaks to me, I feel that woman, I know her desperation, her frustration, her look off into the empty horizon that is like her future — nothing, the patriarchy holds nothing for her except a constant mirage of hope which keeps her stirring yet again, to try the only way she knows, the only way she is allowed.

    I had read before somewhere else that Lange posed the photograph, that really means little to me. Even the fact that she concocted a story and worse, that she lied to the woman probably in an effort to get her to sit for her.

    It is the American way to exploit the poor, especially poor woman with children, absent a man, as a tool for political fodder.

    I could have been that woman, I was that woman at one point and yet I wasn’t. My time was different, my era was different, my experience different. I was among the invisible. No one bothers to document poverty today because denial has more political weight that acceptance. It has since the 50’s.

    But I know what its like to walk for your water, to get up on the ground, to forage for your food, to have the entire world sneer at you, to have no idea what tomorrow will bring, to have your children cry because they are thirsty and there is no clean water to quench their tongues, because they are hungry and the church lady only brought donuts. Again.

    To the person who said poverty wasn’t always all bad. Hey, if you are by yourself, living free and easy, sure it will suck a little, but its ok to buck the system no?

    But when you have children to raise, when the hunger burns in your stomach day after day, when you fear that the state will take your children away and send them to foster care where they may be abused even more than impoverishment, when you are confronted daily with doubt, insult, fear, hatred, ignorance, emptiness, shame and blame, there is no silver lining behind that cloud.

    Sure, I’m tough as nails now that I went through that period and I have no fear of poverty. I don’t cry and have fits if I can’t pay the gas bill, I’ve gone without electricity or heat more times than I can tell you and take it all in stride. I can thumb my nose at convention, tell bill collectors to rot in hell and shamelessly run around in old carpenter’s jeans and t-shirts.

    But there isn’t one day that doesn’t go by that I wish I could just relax and not worry; play my piano again, do photography, what if I had had the chance to go to law school and become a lawyer? Would I have wasted that opportunity?

    My parents are amused at how I carefully wrap up whatever I don’t eat to “save” for tomorrow’s lunch or breakfast, how I will look at a piece of garbage and ponder its possible use somewhere else before tossing it, how I will fix anything first. It all comes from poverty; from doing without. Sure that’s all well and good.

    But I’d love to have a day, maybe a month or a year to know what its like to not have to worry.

    What the rest of the American society thinks about that photograph, I worry about as much as worry about what they think of me; not much, its a waste of my time.

  87. sally

    And you see a photo of a thirty something with actual facial expression – something you’d only see due to poverty or a historical photo these days. Even more rare since twenty something year olds like Hillary Duff, who is 21 years old gets botox.

  88. Melanie

    JBT–thanks for the comparison between male and female within Lange’s photography. Of course, it’s two photos out of many so we can’t draw conclusions, but the difference is nevertheless striking: face and eyes forward, come-what-may grin and firm control versus the furrowed brow, “1,000 yard stare” and a seemingly ingrained indifference.

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