photography. photography as witness moma photography theme
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Photography as WitnessMoMA Photography Theme
QuestionsMoMA Photography ThemeWhy is photography used to document historic events?
MoMA Photography ThemeAlexander GardnerAlexander Gardner. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865). July 1863. Describe the scene in this photograph. What is being depicted?
MoMA Photography ThemeJacob Riis. Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot. 1889.Describe the scene in this photograph. What is being depicted?
MoMA Photography ThemeDorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936What does this photograph communicate about its subjects?
MoMA Photography ThemeGilles Peress. Untitled (boy with hand to head). 1994.What do you think is going on in this photograph?
MoMA Photography ThemeGilles Peress. Untitled (Boy with Hand to Head). 1994.How are these images similar? How are they different?Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936.
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Since its invention in 1839, photography has made radical contributions to the evolution of visual representation. The medium brought with it the ability to capture motion, document a split-second of time, and, thanks to its inherent reproducibility, allowed for the wide circulation of images. From the beginning, there has been no single method for taking photographs. Photography appears to be an easy activity, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson observed. In fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is their instrument. Photographs are made for a variety of purposes and disciplines, including portraiture, science, travel, journalism, propaganda, and art. The medium continues to be reinvented and rethought, shaped by technological advances in equipment and processing and the ever-changing cultural and social dialogues surrounding its use. *Share this information with your students:
This photograph shows a scene from The Civil War. The Civil War in the United States (1861-1865) was one of the first wars to be covered by the relatively new invention of photography. Because of the still laborious and lengthy process of taking and developing photographs, early war photographers were limited to taking photographs of the aftermath of battles, campsites or preparations for battle rather than the action during the battles. Alexander Gardner was one of the most prolific photographers during The Civil War.
How do you think seeing photographic images of the war might have changed the American publics experience of the war?
This photograph is the subject of controversy because later analysis has revealed that Gardner staged the image to intensify the emotional effects it would have on the viewer. He moved the corpse of the dead solider and propped up his head so that it faced the camera and placed a rifle next to the solider that was actually one Gardner carried with him. The practice of staging scenes in this fashion was not uncommon at that time.
Does knowing that Gardner staged this photograph make it less of a visual, historic document of The Civil War to you?
Alexander Gardner. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865). July 1863. Albumen silver print, 7 x 9" (17.8 x 22.9 cm). Anonymous gift *Share this information with your students:
Jacob Riis was a journalist, social activist, and photographer in the late 1800s in New York City. In 1878 Riis became a police reporter for the New York Tribune newspaper and was assigned to the area known as Mulberry Bend where the worst slums and tenements in the city were. Riis began to take photographs documenting the terrible living conditions. Photographs like Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot show tenement dwellers caught in candid moments, highlighting the crowded, dirty, and dangerous situations they lived in.
Riis gave magic lantern lectures using his photographs in addition to using them in conjunction with his articles and eventually published them in the successful 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements. Despite controversy over his techniques and agenda, Riis photographs are widely credited as helping to bring attention and improvements to the degrading conditions in the tenements.
Why do you think Riiss photographs of tenement dwellers were more effective in communicating his social reform agenda than the articles he wrote on the subject?
Jacob August Riis. Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot. 1889. Gelatin silver print, printed 1957, 6 3/16 x 4 3/4" (15.7 x 12 cm). Gift of the Museum of the City of New York *Share this information with your students:
Dorothea Lange took this photograph in 1936, while she was employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document camps of migratory farm laborers escaping dustbowl conditions and battling poverty in California during the Great Depression. She came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California.
What does the facial expression and gesture of the central figure convey?
How do you think a photograph like this may be helpful to raise awareness or sympathy of the plight of this mother and others suffering from the Great Depression?
Why do you think the government would commission something like this?
The government commissioned work like this by the FSA to raise awareness of the plight of farmers during the Depression and also to prevent something like this from happening again.
Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936Gelatin silver print, 11 1/8 x 8 9/16 (28.3 x 21.8 cm). Purchase
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Gilles Peress is a French photojournalist who has documented events of conflict, revolution, and war all over the world. These photograph shows victims of the Rwandan genocide, which occurred in 1994. The genocide was the result of long simmering conflicts between the two major ethnic groups in the country, the Tutsi and the Hutu. In a relatively short period of time approximately 800,000 Tutsi were murdered. These haunting and disturbing photographs show the gruesome aftermath and horrific human suffering of this event. Peress has said I dont care so much anymore about good photography; I am gathering evidence for history. These powerful images show photographys ability to serve as a witness to unspeakable moments in human history.
Why do you think the photographer might have wanted the boy to look directly into the camera?
Respond to the photographers statement about gathering evidence for history. How might this image be evidence for history?
Gilles Peress. Untitled (boy with hand to head). 1994Gelatin silver print, 36 x 55" (91.4 x 139.7cm). Gift of Susan and Peter MacGill. 2012 Giles Peress *Share this information with your students:
Compare the composition, pose, body language, and expression of the subjects of these two photographs taken almost sixty years apart. How are they similar and how are they different?
Compare the intentions of the respective photographers. Peress has said he uses photography to gather evidence for history. Langes boss at the FSA, Rexford Guy Tugwell said: It seemed important to record the incredible events of those years; and the best way was to photograph them. Thinking about these two statements, discuss how the medium of photography can be used as evidence for history.
Why do you think photography has been so effective in this way? Do you think a written article would be as effective in communicating the two historic events shown in these photographs? Why or why not?
Gilles Peress. Untitled. 1994. Gelatin silver print, 36 x 55" (91.4 x 139.7 cm). Gift of Susan and Peter MacGill. 2012 Gilles Peress45.2007.6
Dorothea Lange. "A Destitute Mother: The Type Aided by the WPA. 1936. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 7 11/16" (25.5 x 19.6 cm). The New York Times Collection2034.2001