No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy

No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy


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In No Caption Needed, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites provide the definitive study of the iconic photograph as a dynamic form of public art. Their critical analyses of nine individual icons explore the photographs themselves and their subsequent circulation through an astonishing array of media, including stamps, posters, billboards, editorial cartoons, TV shows, Web pages, tattoos, and more. Iconic images are revealed as models of visual eloquence, signposts for collective memory, means of persuasion across the political spectrum, and a crucial resource for critical reflection.
Arguing against the conventional belief that visual images short-circuit rational deliberation and radical critique, Hariman and Lucaites make a bold case for the value of visual imagery in a liberal-democratic society. No Caption Needed is a compelling demonstration of photojournalism’s vital contribution to public life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226316062
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2007
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robert Hariman is professor of communication at Northwestern University and the author of Political Style: The Artistry of Power. John Louis Lucaites is professor of communication and culture at Indiana University. He is coauthor of Crafting Equality: America’s Anglo-African World.

Read an Excerpt

No Caption Needed

Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy
By Robert Hariman John Louis Lucaites

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31606-2

Chapter One

Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" was photographed in February 1936 in a pea pickers' camp in Nipomo, California, while on assignment as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA), which soon would become the better-known Farm Security Administration (FSA). As Lange told the story years later, the decision to stop at the pea picker's camp was fortuitous. She was driving home after a month in the field when she happened upon a sign identifying the camp. She tried to ignore the sign and drive on, but after twenty miles she was compelled to return to the camp, "following instinct, not reason." She shot six photographs in a very short period of time of the woman and members of her family, starting at a distance and working her way closer and closer after the fashion of a portrait photographer. Her photos first appeared in the San Francisco News on March 10, 1936, as part of a story demanding relief for the starving pea pickers. The feature was a success: relief was organized, and there is no record of death by starvation. This story of the photo's origin and impact is, of course, a bit too good. Every icon acquires a standard narrative and often others as well. The standard narrative includes a myth of origin, a tale of public uptake or impact, and a quest for the actual people in the picture to provide closure for the larger social drama captured by the image. In this case, the photo's origin is due to serendipity, not routine or craft. There is no mention of Lange's government subsidy nor of the fact that the photo was retouched to remove the woman's thumb in the lower right corner. Most tellingly, it slides over the fact that the iconic photo was not actually shown in the San Francisco News until the day following the original story. Iconic photos acquire mythic narratives: Lange becomes a poetic vehicle for the operation of historical forces; by mobilizing public opinion, the photographer provides the impetus to collective action. "The star illustration of moving somebody to do something is 'Migrant Mother.'"

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.

Of course, the "Migrant Mother" is also overwhelmingly a photograph about class, and one that evokes not just sympathy but compassion, an impulse to help that crosses social boundaries. The powerful depiction of class difference becomes most obvious when the photograph is contrasted with other visual images that dotted the symbolic environment at the time, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) ad campaign. One especially prominent billboard in the NAM campaign featured the image of a middle-class family-including a smiling mom, self-assured dad, and rosy-cheeked cherubs in their Sunday-best clothing-out for a leisurely drive in the family car. The visual image is framed between two captions announcing "World's Highest Standard of Living" and "There's No Way Like the American Way." NAM was not known for enthusiastic support of the New Deal, and it is clear that visual images figured prominently in the competition for public opinion. The more memorable images would have to be more than straightforward depictions of one condition or another, however, and more than just idealized or realistic.

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.


Excerpted from No Caption Needed by Robert Hariman John Louis Lucaites Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents




Migrant Mother and the Times Square Kiss

Flag Raisings at Iwo Jima and Ground Zero

Kent State

Accidental Napalm

Tiananmen Square

The Hindenburg and Challenger Explosions

Visual Democracy


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