And then, I discovered what could be an ugly truth thaty destroys not only this image as THE best example of documentary photography ever taken, but also one's faith in the process someone like Lange who has been lauded as the an exemplar of the photographic documentary form.
I think Lange set up the shot.
Here's why. On the same web site showing all of Lange's work is an image that was taken years before "Migrant Mother" when Lange was photographing in another part of America. This image is the telltale sign that maybe Lange was not as honest in her work as the documentary genre demands.
But, it is not iconic. And, perhaps it is not because of this mother's more awkward attempt to do what may have been suggested she do by, of all people...the photographer, Dorothea Lange.
In "Migrant Mother #1" when Lange may have first tested out the dramatic element of the hand to the face, it didn't quite work and editors who may have seen this photograph may have dismissed it as pedestrian given how the move of the hand to the face just doesn't seem real and may have been raised to the face in such a way as to pose for the shot.
In the "Migrant Mother" we all know and love, the expression seems so much more natural. One might not even notice the awkwardness of the first one were it not for the apparent genuineness of the latter. In fact, this second shot seems so spontaneous that one feels that Lange must have been extraordinarily lucky to have snapped it at the right moment. Not so in the first case...it appears that the mother was holding the pose long enough for the photograph to be taken.
What a difference. What a stunning travesty.
Documentary photography, by definition, is of the kind where the photographer is a mere "fly on the wall." The job of the documentary photographer is to work hard to ensure that his/her presence is not the factor that influences the scene being shot. The work is to record life as it unfolds, uninfluenced by the observer and, certainly, unaided in it dramatic effect. In fact, nearly every single book, monograph or video on documentary photography makes this point.
If it is not so, then the photograph is certainly a photograph, but it is not documentary. Instead, it could be advertising (as in Lange's case it might have been given as how her mission was to "sell" the notion that migrants were escaping poverty and rushing to the promised land of California as the government editors of the Farm Services Administration wanted the world to see at the time).
She is not the only photographer of the era to have done such a thing if it is true she did. Ben Shawn has long been accused of carrying around the skull of a longhorn steer that had once dried up in the desert so he could conveniently drop it into any number of photographic landscapes he made of the plains at the time. Even some of Walker Evans's photographs during the same era have been questioned, although there is no proof he arranged them for his camera. Most recently, a photographer in Iraq was criticized for perhaps dropping a rag doll on the ruins of a building that had been accused of being bombed by allied forces as a way to show the sadness of civilian children devastated by that war.
Lange's work is good...there is no doubt about that. But, she rose head and shoulders above her peer documentarians at the time with the "Migrant Mother" photograph. That set her apart.
If it is true that she set it up based on a gesture for the person sitting for her portraits, then it is a monumental ruse that has been put over on the public and on photographers at all levels for years. With this lie comes a host of problems many photographers today try to neutralize by being scrupulous as to how they photograph a scene. They are often criticized in war zones by partisans that they make pictures slanted toward one side or the other. And, skeptics at home often doubt the authenticity of the photographs they see.
This all leads to an erosion of confidence in the work that documentary photographers slavishly try to put forth as authentic records of life on the planet. It works against what ought to be a reportage of what the experience is like to be in war, to be poor, to be injured, to be mentally ill, and the work of David Douglas Duncan, Jacob Riis, Weegee, Mary Ellen Mark, and their like, made those kinds of themes resonate with viewers because they were so dedicated to the truth.
To discover that Lange cheated is a blow to me. But, perhaps the lesson is that one has to be even more dedicated to ensure that what is recorded in my camera is actually what happened AS it happened. Maybe that's the takeaway here.
It's a shame the point has to be made by seeing one time when it wasn't so.