Lewis Hine, March 1937. Scott’s Run, West Virginia. Johnson family, father unemployed.
This photograph by Lewis Hine doesn’t only strike me because of its excellence in composition and mastery of light, it although strikes me because of the specific way Hine used the frame to create a mother and child narrative that invites the viewer to react with a specific kind of empathy for what the viewer means to read in the picture. Hine`s picture is the perfect example for photographs in which the narrative of the photograph is not created in or by the picture itself but by implanted presets of morals, and values which are transfered onto the image by the viewer.
The photographs in the following set of pictures attempt to cause a specific kind of empathy as they will show that their narrative and the emotional context in which they operate is created through the fact that the subject matter is a woman, shown with her children in a specific way.
Would we replace the woman in the following photographs with the body of a man, the narrative we would create from the following pictures would be completely different.
TAOTC, Recreation of the same a Lewis Hine photograph with a male person.
The way in which the viewer seems to read Lewis Hine`s and similar photographs results from their reference to each other and to other existing and historical mother and child imagery. The suffering mother with child is repeatedly shown in a similar way, which is linking the suffering to the mothers woumaness. This kind of imagery and presentation is although existing in painting, cinema and literature. The context of similar imagery, pre-imagery and implanted pictures transfer Lewis Hine`s and similar photographs into alternates and monuments for the suffering mother in general.
Example: Heinrich Zille: “Das eiserne Kreuz” [Heinrich Zille, “The iron cross”, 1916] The fallen father received the iron cross, but the mother with her four children suffers by the threatening of poverty and and an uncertain future.
Pictures like the photograph of Lewis Hine don`t function because they would have the ability to tell a complex story of individual suffering or because they portrait a singular person or situation by themselves as photographs. They function because of their reference to pre-imagery and implanted morals, related to the subject of the suffering mother which is linked to an assumed misbehavior of the male partner who doesn’t fulfill his cultural expected role as protector of his family and his wife. These photographs play with the paradox of actual absence but psychological presence of the childrens father in the photograph at the same time.
With his work Lewis Hine wanted to draw attention to the subhuman living conditions of poor women and people from the working class. In other words his picture of the mother in West Virginia was never supposed to function as a singular portrait of only this one woman shown in the photograph. But, (and this the main paradox): the photograph functions only because the viewer is pushed to identify with the singular shown mother in the image. Thus those kind of photographs that look like portraits of singular woman`s suffer become to a symbol for the suffering mother and male misbehavior in general.
In this way, these kind of photographs can be seen as paradoxical and desperate pictures themselves, as they need the viewers identification with the mother from which we don`t really know anything. They need text and sublines to be understood in a context that gives them their value. Their sublines and titles are like accomplices which are distracting from the surfaceness of the photographs narrative and from the fact that the mother in the photograph can only be a symbol.
In fact these kind of photographs live from their context as part of the pictorial and psychological monument of the suffering mother with child. They live from their black and whiteness, the light settings, the repeated presentation of the woman in relatively near distance to one or more children in protective gesture. Often the mother is presented sitting or standing in relationship to their house or belongings. The facial expressions of mothers and children, the rooms or surroundings with all their furniture and items become to symbols that the viewer is trying to read to get deeper into the woman`s emotions and in hope of more information about her situation and to find deeper identification or understanding to her emotions.
We understand the symbolic of the oven and the far away table in the second room of Lewis Hine´s picture as cultural objects and as symbols for unsatisfied human needs for food and warmth. We are willing to read the women`s facial expressions as symbols for disappointment and desire of a warmth that doesn’t only come from the empty pans and the cold oven.
Our cultural morals and values seem to invite the viewer to read and to feel about this photographs in a specific way, which is the similar to the emotions we seem to be supposed to feel when standing in front of a monument. The photographs start to feel empty to me, once the surfaceness of their narrative is exposed. But nevertheless and in their paradox way I still believe with persistence in the importance of these pictures existence, in relation to the time they were taken and as a visual and emotional tool to draw attention to the mis-circumstances in this world and the existing subject of violence and suffering behind the symbolic imagery. These pictures are important, even if it`s not the photographs directly as object themselves that have the ability tos cause a change.
Jacob Riis, “Italian Mother and Baby, Ragpicker, New York,” ca. 1889-1890.
In Jacob Riis` photograph the woman is sitting in a room with confusing symbolic. Does she really live in that room? Where does the hat behind her on the wall come from? Is this a male hat? What is the role of the babies father and where is he? Similar to Lewis Hine`s picture the room and its objects become to symbols we want to read in hope to learn more about the individual woman and the meaning of the situation. I wonder if Jacob Riis has asked her to sit in a chair for this portrait and if he asked her to look away from the camera or if it just happened? How did Lewis Hine get his picture? And do the circumstances of the portraits really matter? They do, if we want to talk about the impact of how mother and child are represented through photographs in a repeated and similar way.
Werner Bischof HUNGARY. Hajduhadhaza. 1947
In Bischofs photograph the camera doesn`t feel empathetic as in Lewis Hines image. The camera feels threatening and objectifying even more as it does in Riis“ photograph. Similar as in Hine`s picture the surrounding room is only indicated in the frame. The dark space surrounding the family feels so uncomfortable that the viewer doesn`t want to see what the room looks like outside of the frame. The woman in the picture is out of focus but we can still vague the mimic of her face. In all photographs of this set the body gestures and facial expressions play an important role in creating the narrative. We are willing to read them as slightly different stories in a similar context of the suggestion of female suffering relate to male behavior. The gesture of protection plays an important role. In this photograph the family builds a triangle, different to Lewis Hines and Riis photographs in which the children are directly hold in the mothers arm.
Ben Shahn, A family of a Resettlement Administration client in the doorway of their home, Boone County, Arkansas, October 1935 by Ben Shahn.
The gesture of uncomfortness
In Ben Shahan`s photography the woman is although photographed in protecting relationship to her children and in relationship to what the viewer is identifying as her home. The home is reduced to a wooden stage and the interpretations the viewer can make are mostly based on the facial expressions and gestures of uncomfortness against the camera which seems to be very near and threatening to the woman.
The gesture of uncomfortness against the camera although plays an important role in the photographs of Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, Werner Bischof and the following photograph by Russel Lee.
Russel Lee, Mrs. Paul Rauhauser and two of her seven children in their home at Ruthven, Iowa, 1936
Where is Mister Rauhauser?
Similar to the women in the pictures of Hine and Riis, Mrs. Rauhauser is placed sitting in front of the camera with her children. Although the home is more indicated in the frame. This picture makes it most obvious how much the photographs in this set play with the surroundings and items around the women in the frames. The surroundings function as evidence and explanations for the situation. The bedsheets and dolls let us assume that this womans living conditions might have been much better then the living conditions of the women in the other photographs, but we don`t know it. The photograph must be read different because of the better interior but still in the same context of the suffering mother with child. The way she is sitting in the frame with her children is similar and although here is the play with the facial expressions. She looks unhappy and there is although her uncomfortness against the camera.
Arthur Rothstein, Interior of the old Pettway home, Alabama 1937
In Rothstein`s photograph the presence of the male person and the persons behind him makes the subject of the suffering mother more complex. He is sitting in a much higher chair then her. The way she is sitting and holding her children protectively looks very similar to the woman in Hines photograph. All the facial expressions are very serious. The woman seems to look down while the man is directly looking at her. There is a distance between them which shouldn`t allow it to speak to each other in a normal tone. The wide angle of the camera makes this feeling of distance between both even stronger. She looks isolated against the group oft he man, older woman and child, which all seem to look concerned about her in different ways. Does she look ashamed or angry? The situation is unclear, because the facial expressions are ambiguous. That is what makes the photograph fascinating and different from the earlier photographs of Riis, Lee and Hine.
Jürgen Heinemann, Arbeiterfamilie in Maracaibo, Venezuela, 1969
Jürgen Heinemann`s very strong photograph becomes fascinating as it seems to be most obvious evidence for the pre-imagery we have all in our heads in different ways. This picture seems to portrait all our cultural and cinematic knowledge related to the subject of the suffering mother in this one photograph. His brilliance with the play of light and shadow in the room is very symbolic and similar to the brilliant symbolic of the light on the table and oven in Lewis Hines picture.
The woman is anxiously pressed in the corner while she is looking on her man. He stands with the back to her. His figure is only is only a dark shadow and he looks like a dark statue. By this presentation the man becomes to a monster in the head of the viewer. The presentation of the man recognizes to cinematic imagery of the threatening male at home. By his posture and the white cross on the wall in his back,the picture becomes symbolic for the subject of the suffering mother, who is keeping distance from him, pulling her children into her body, the young girl cannot look at the father or man and the young boy does it while covering under his mothers dress.
Milton Rogovin, Lower West Side, 1972-1977
Rogovin his photograph from the Lower West Side (taken between 1972-77) looks different from the photographs we have seen in this set of images before. It seems to tell a slightly different story about mother and child as it is missing the uncomfortness of the woman against the camera. This woman looks self-confident and friendly into it and her son seems to look curious about the camera. The gesture between her and her son seems less protective. The arms and posture of mother and son in the room suggest a rather trustful and relaxed atmosphere. But it stays the question about the role of the child`s father and the similarity to the other photographs by the way the mother is presented sitting in relationship with her child and symbolic items in between the indicated home.
Eugene W. Smith,Tomoko in Her Bath, Mother and daughter with Minamata Disease, Japan
Eugene Smith`s photograph from Tomoko Uemura who is bathing her daughter, who has the Minamata Disease is although missing the uncomfortness of mother and child against the camera. The room is dark, and we can only see Tomoko Uemura and her daughter in the indicated bathroom. The usual indication of the home with the woman surrounded by walls and personal items is missing in this photograph. The symbols, facial expressions and indications that typically suggest a threatening husband are missing this photograph. The viewer might wonder about the role of the child`s father, but doesn`t feel any uncomfortness about the situation, as the light and the facial expressions between mother and the daughter seem friendly and trustful to each other and agreeing to the presence of the camera. In this image the protective gesture is empathic not desperate but a necessary one, as the daughter could not bath herself alone.
Sebastiao Salgado,Refugee camp at Benako, Tanzania, 1994.
In Sebastião Salgado´s photograph of mother and child in a refugee camp in Tanzania the facial expressions are similar as in Bischof`s photograph almost invisible and can only be vaguer. The mother is sitting like an instance in front of all the chaos of the refugee camp but she seems to be calm and not uncomfort while she is playing with the baby in her arms. Her hopeful and self confident posture feels confusing against the chaotic surrounding — and against our cultural knowledge of the horror of refugeeness and refugee camps. This narrative feels surprising and makes the woman appear very brave.
Stephen shames, Tabernacle Church in Venice, California., 1999
Stephen Shames photograph of mother and child shows them in a Californian church where the homeless people are coming to sleep at night. The church is only indicated by the typical wooden benches. The narrative feels like the symbol for modern family dramas, which might be still the same then before 1950. Like the other photographs it is an important but paradox tool to draw attentions to the mis-circumstances of poverty, homelessness and violence against women and children.
This article may have criticized and analyzed the representation of woman and children in a specific way. The photographs as a group show, that the pictures need text and sublines and they can only give very limited information about the individual situation or woman by themselves. Thus they can only function as a symbol. But they are important, even in their symbolic, as they show us, that we are still dealing with the same mis-circumstances in our world, even if the meaning of family has changed dramatically between 1880 and today.
TAOTC,Young mother with Child, East River Ferry, Greenpoint New York December 2013.
In this commentary the child is pressed in the mother her arm. Although her facial expression is not clearly visible. The back light in her hair and the colorful clothes isolate her from the background and make the scene appear more dramatic. The title is placed to opens doors for assumptions. I used a doll instead of a person to separate the narrative from the assumption that it could tell anything about an existing person, so that the elements that create the assumption of a suffering mother in a photograph get more visible.