Is Every Portrait Photograph a Lie?

Truth, at best, is always an unstable concept, especially when combined with the medium of photography. This fascinating short video from Jamie Windsor takes one of the most famous portraits ever taken, reveals its deception, and explores the implications.

Windsor unpicks the tale of the Migrant Mother, an iconic photograph taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 that came to define the era of the Depression in the United States (and you can read here about how it was edited). As one of the subject’s sons later noted: “I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.” Given our reverence for honesty and transparency, is it important when a lie is used to communicate a truth? (If that's a question that interests you, you may wish to check out this article.)

Windsor briefly makes mention of Judith Butler’s pivotal work, Gender Trouble, suggesting that performance of identity has deep implications. Sociologist Erving Goffman would certainly agree, and if you’ve some time to kill, it’s worth tracking down his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

In fact, if you want to take a few hours away from Netflix and explode your brain a little, sit down and watch Ways of Seeing on YouTube. If you’ve not encountered John Berger’s ideas before, you may end up with an entirely different understanding of how photography — and society itself — functions.

Thoughts? Leave a comment below.

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Ignace Maenhaut van Lemberge's picture

Very interesting post. Much food for thought.. Thank you!

Michael Holst's picture

This is always an interesting topic to discuss.

Every photo will have some level of bias behind it because the photographer chooses what to capture. Additionally, because we cannot capture everything, we decide what to leave out. This doesn't automatically mean that photography should be dropped from journalism but that photo journalists should careful to remove as much bias as possible whenever possible.

Being aware of our own impact on what the photo will show and removing as much personal influence as we can.

all journalists make decisions of what to leave in and out ultimately.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Let's take it up a notch. Our brains create an illusion of objectivity - it could never be absolute. They construct our reality based on many factors: preconceived ideas, emotional experiences, education, etc - we could never quite get rid of them completely. The truth itself in this light is a pretty artificial concept, which more straightforward for simple rather complex things. So having a single data point as with D. Lange's famous portrait conveys significantly less info then a series of photographs (by virtue of adding a time dimension) - which is what makes Nan Goldins work more truthful.

A little too much baloney here. Sure Dorothea Lange got the captions wrong. But unfortunately Jamie Windsor is engaging in the same bad behavior that he accuses the photographer of engaging in. He is making untrue statements about the photographs. He says the photographer was "rearranging them and reposing them ...". The various photos are not evidence of the photographer rearranging and reposing anything. Big news: people — especially kids — naturally move around, people naturally move their arms, etc. They aren't planted and frozen still until a photographer comes along to move them. Spend 15 minutes observing people doing anything and you will get many different supposed "arrangements" and "poses". Jamie accuses the photographer of "making sure she didn't photograph the older daughter ...". And yet Dorothea Lange did photograph the older daughter, as is evident from the photo in the video. That photo with the older daughter is by Dorothea Lange. So Jamie actually shows the photo that he claims the photographer didn't make! How did she "make sure" she didn't photograph the older daughter that she in fact photographed?

Jamie Windsor's picture

You're focussing on a fairly inconsequential detail of the video here, it's about the idea that portraits can't convey the complexities of a whole person, not really the micro-details of Lange's shoot with Thompson and her kids. But in relation to your points, there is no controversy about whether she posed them or not, both Lange and Thompson have talked about this in interviews.

Your point about the older daughter has slightly more weight as this is a conclusion I have reached from piecing together various bits of information about the shot and its publication. If you look at the chronology of Lange's images, she is clearly working out what the key to this image is (ending with the famous photo). The older daughter was in the early shots, but was cut out as she went on. Knowing how having a load of kids would sit with the more conservative vote, it's pretty obvious why she stopped photographing her. But this is an assumption on my part (albeit an educated one).

I'm focusing on your reading of the photo, which ascribes certain actions to the photographer: rearranging and reposing people. But the photos themselves are not evidence of that. Perhaps I missed it, but I'm not aware of an interview by either Lange or Thompson that describes rearranging or posing of people to make these photos.

Similarly, you ascribe a specific motivation to the photographer: making sure the older daughter wasn't in the picture. But none of the photos are evidence that Lange "cut out" the older daughter, or that she did so for a political reason. It is very common for a documentary photographer to explore a scene by making some wider shots to include the setting (the whole tent, dirt on the ground, etc.), and some narrower shots that get closer on a person or details (worry on a face, etc.).

It would be surprising if Lange had included the older daughter in *every* photo, even the final closeup photo. The reason that the older daughter wasn't in the "final" photo might simply and naturally be that the older daughter wasn't snuggling with mom as the younger children were. Besides, the notion that having 4 children in the photo would make the subject less sympathetic is likely to be a present-day perspective rather than a 1936 perspective.

As for your main point that a portrait can't convey the complexities of a whole person, that's certainly true!