Question asked in Tutor report for Assignment 5 – “How have twentieth-century photographers balanced the camera’s capacity for documentation with its aesthetic possibilities in order to convey a variety of social and cultural messages?”

This is a question that was posed by my tutor in my feedback to Assignment 5 and feel this deserved a separate blog.

My tutor advised me to look at the Getty video on Dorothy Lange’s photographs and also her image Migrant Mother and I was considering doing a separate blog comparing her work of the Great Depression with my own brother’s portraits of the homeless in his adopted town of Frederick, Maryland, USA and also making reference to  Shine Gonzalvez’s work regarding the homeless in the UK.

Dorothy Lange was a photographer during the Great Depression and photographed the migrant workers of the era as well as those who had lost jobs and her photographs are a remarkable window into the past and this is particularly so with her iconic image of the migrant mother.  By capturing the images of the Great Depression in American Dorothy Lange documented the suffering of the era in a similar way to which the Romantic artists portrayed the suffering of people in their reportage of events or the Realist artists painted scenes or reality of life which were not always pleasant.

My brother Andrew has photographed many of the homeless people of his community to raise awareness that these people are not just bunches of rags or blankets but real human beings with stories to tell of why they have ended up homeless in a similar way to how Shine Gonzalvez has with her images  – both of these photographers in two different countries are carrying on the work of the documentary photographers of the Great Depression and all those in the intervening years as they photograph the images that are not all pretty and pleasant and palatable but those that are far tougher to see.

If I think of the question regarding aesthetic possibilities in order to convey the social and cultural messages and I look at the work of Dorothy Lange or indeed the work of these two modern photographers I must consider that these are not the aforesaid pretty images but these are hard and at times brutal thought provoking images which no matter how much you want to look away effectively force you to look.  The iconic image of Migrant Mother with her two children looking away from the camera is one that conveys a direct message of despair and worry for the future and  although you want this woman to have hope you see none in her face or eyes – there is nothing beautiful about it but there is a cultural message about the era.

I note that Andrew and Shine have both taken photographs of the homeless in black and white rather than colour and I must presume this is because somehow in colour you loose some of the message you are trying to convey – the black and white allows the features of the face and the eyes of the person to tell their story to the viewer without the distraction of colour or the aesthetic qualities.

So to answer the question fully “how have the twentieth-century photographers balanced the camera’s capacity for documentation with its aesthetic possibilities …. etc” is to say I feel they have the camera’s capacity to document life as they see it, or as life indeed is, no matter how harsh and taken out the aesthetic possibilities in how they have composed the images – anything beautiful that can detract is removed.  Andrew and Shine have the option of many different Photoshop programs or filters at their disposal but Dorothy had essentially dark rooms and cameras that were incredibly basic in comparison to those of the modern era and so she had to consider the light, the composition and the specifics of what mood she wanted to capture or evoke with her photographs were seen by the public.

My last paragraph brings me on to the final question my tutor asks – “Consider how the meaning of a photograph is constructed, and how meaning might change through time or in a particular context.  What is the value of documentary  photography” …

A photograph is constructed and composed often with a specific meaning that the photographer wishes to convey – Dorothy wanted to convey what the Great Depression meant in reality to so many in the same way Shine or Andrew want to get across the message of the lives of the homeless or displaced on the streets today.  A photograph can be effectively composed in a studio or on a stage or it can be taken in a split moment in time which is often what Dorothy did according to the video when she asked for the car which she was a passenger in  to be stopped so she could document another scene or person.  Photographs do change over time with regards to meaning or if you take the context away and there is no question of that – the Migrant mother could be any mother on any of the intervening years since that image was taken, with only the clothing giving the era away, and a viewer could question whether it was taken in France, Germany, England or the USA amongst others and so the context of the Great Depression becomes meaningless as a viewer may just consider it be a mother in despair for a multitude of reasons including perhaps World War II.  That one photograph demonstrates this change of meaning in time or context more  perfectly than any other that I have seen.  Everyone has photographs of their families which at the time portrayed happy scenes but due to arguments or divorce no longer mean the same or hold the same values and this is the same with documentary photography – the emotions or atmosphere or cultural messages that the photographer wanted to evoke will change with time and as the era is seen in an entirely different context.

Often many people will look back on the Great Depression almost through ‘rose coloured spectacles’ in the same way many people romanticize the Wild West when in fact life was tough, it was harsh and it was unrelenting and perhaps that is what ultimately makes the Migrant Mother so iconic because it was all of those and so much more.  Documentary photography captures events and lives in sometimes brutal reality often in very short spaces of time as they capture an image – a painter will view a scene in a very different way to a photographer because the painter spends time noting and sketching if the work is then completed in a studio or spend considerable more time painting a scene as they see it if they work en plein air.  Documentary photographers are now considered a vital part of life with the images they capture and their value cannot be underestimated when you consider the work of people like Dorothy Lange or the photographers of World War I and II as well as the modern day – they capture life around us and the events that make history whether pleasant and aesthetically pleasing or brutal and harsh or anything in between.

Finally as I think of the comparison between Dorothy Langem Andrew and Shine I do not think of the differences but the similarities in the fact they use the camera not to capture purely pleasant images, although I am fully aware of my brother’s outstanding landscape images which he takes more for his own pleasure, but they take photographs of people who are the hidden of society or the downcast or downtrodden and who lives are tough and despairing.  Dorothy Lange used her skills to get the message across the world that the Great Depression was just that – depressing and tough and her images still get that message across with no romanticism.


A&E Television Networks, LLC (2017).  Dorothy Lange Photographer (1895-1965) [online].  [Date Accessed:  January 2017].  Available from:

Gonzalvez, S.  (date unknown).  Shine Gonzalvez Photography [online].  [Date Accessed:  January 2017].  Available from:

J. Paul Getty Trust. (date unknown).  Dorothy Lange’s Documentary Photographs [online].  [Date Accessed:  January 2017].  Available from:’s-documentary-photographs/

Natural Artistry Photography.  (date unknown)  Personal Projects [online].  [Date Accessed:  January 2017].  Available from:

Stein, S. (date unknown).  Passing Likeness Dorothy Lange’s Migrant Mother and the Paradox of Iconicity [online].  [Date Accessed:  January 2017].  Available from:

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1 Response to Question asked in Tutor report for Assignment 5 – “How have twentieth-century photographers balanced the camera’s capacity for documentation with its aesthetic possibilities in order to convey a variety of social and cultural messages?”

  1. Pingback: Tutor Report on Assignment 5 with my response | History of Art – Jane M Murdock

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