Photography Essay

This blog post contains the final piece of my Unit 5 Contextual Influences in Art and Design. We had to produce an essay based three different scenarios and come up with our own essay title to fit one of those scenarios given. I produced an essay comparing an image from Sally Mann and Dorothea Lange. This essay was produced by me and is of my own words and was based off my own research. This essay cannot be copied and used as it was submitted within Turn it in meaning it can be checked for plagiarism. I wanted to post it to allow you to see my opinions on some of the most iconic images of the 20th Century. For further reading I have given you the links to where I did my research. (These are the same links in the blog posts where I research and talk about Sally Mann and Dorothea Lange that was the evidence of my research which I used to produce my essay)

Essay Title: Compare and Contrast the work of Dorothea Lange and Sally Mann on the theme of controversial photography.


Dorothea Lange is considered as one of most influential documentary photographers of all time, whilst Sally Mann is a fine art photographer, known for creating highly controversial contemporary photographs. This essay will be discussing two images; one from Dorothea Lange and one from Sally Mann. The main purpose of this essay will be to compare and contrast these images, and discussing the theme “Controversial Photography” within the essay.

Dorothea Lange was born in 1895, and many consider her as one of the most influential American documentary photographers. Lange also worked within Photojournalism. She studied Photography in New York at the Columbia University, and was taught by Clarence H White, an American Photographer. While studying within New York Lange had been an apprentice to many New York Photography Studios including one owned by Arnold Genthe, an American-German Photographer. In 1918 Lange moved to San Francisco to set up her own portrait studio, which went on to become very successful.

In the 1930’s America saw a huge decline in its economic success due to the Great Depression, which affected multiple countries and caused the worldwide GDP to fall. This led America’s unemployment to rise, and there was a lot of poverty, especially in the rural south. With a growing number of rural American citizens becoming unemployed and affected by the great depression, Lange turned her camera from studio work to street photography. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) (formerly known as Resettlement Administration) employed Lange as part of their Photography project. This project was to document the rural poverty caused by the great depression. The project has produced lots of images, which are stored in the Library of Congress.

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother 1936

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother 1936

Here is one of Lange’s most famous images, The Migrant Mother (1936). This is considered one of the iconic images from the great depression in America. The image originally was taken six times, however the other variants of it are not as well known. Within the frame we see what looks to be a mother looking after her children. Their clothes are dirty and ragged, which creates quite a striking effect on the viewer of the image, as it is quite easy to pick out the fact their clothes are dirty and ragged even though it is a black and white image. The image conveys a quite a lot of emotion, while face of the mother conveys empathy as she is aged, tired and stressed. Many people can relate to this image, as motherhood is hard, especially whilst trying to sustain enough money to keep your family going. This is supported by the two children looking for cover and support from the harsh environment that surrounds them, while the third child is cradled and comforted by their mother. Because of the detail and the empathy in the photograph, it has met the brief Lange had from the FSA. Overall I find the image captivating from a photographical standpoint but also because of the emotion conveyed and communicated from the image. The image, though taken in black and white, is more dynamic than if it were shot in colour. It being black and white also gives it a timeless feel that shows regardless of the camera used and technology involved. You are able to create dynamic and captivating images with any equipment. Sally Mann is also a very well known American born photographer who specialises in fine art photography and portraiture. Over the years Mann has earned quite a reputation for creating beautiful images that have been highly controversial. Reynolds Price says in Time Magazine

“Few photographers of any time or place have matched Sally Mann’s steadiness of simple eyesight, her serene technical brilliance, and the clearly communicated eloquence she derives from her subjects…” (Price, R)

Mann studied creative writing at Bennington College and then went on study a Master of Arts at Hollins University, Virginia. While studying her creative writing Mann discovered Photography and began to take an active interest in it. After her graduation at Hollins, Mann went on to work as a photographer at Washington & Lee University. After that Mann started to delve more into Conceptual and Fine Art Photography and has produced many photo books that have been successful. The last of her photo books “The Immediate Family (1992)” has had major success but has also been hit by a lot of criticism. One critic said

“selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit is an exploitation of the parental role and I think it’s wrong.” Pat Robertson – Christian Broadcasting Network.

Sally Mann’s The Candy Cigarette 1989

Sally Mann’s The Candy Cigarette 1989

The Candy Cigarette is considered by many to be a highly controversial image. It is part of Sally Mann’s photography book The Immediate Family. The book mainly features images of Mann’s three children, Emmet, Jessie and Virginia. Within the frame of the image we see three children. However two of the children are out of focus and are facing away from the camera, while the child in the centre is looking into the camera. This is one of Mann’s children, Jessie. She appears to be holding cigarette and is ready to smoke. The image creates a very dark scene, as Jessie is poised in quite a provocative and adult way. The overall exposure is quite dark and focuses more on the children, bringing all attention to the subject, which creates a strong confrontation between the subject and the viewer. This causes the viewer to question what they know of children’s innocence and re-think their views on what a child is. The image has clearly been produced and composed to look provocative and to make the viewer question the innocence of childhood. In my opinion I am torn about liking this image or if this image is unethical and exploits the very nature of a child’s innocence. However I do agree Reynolds Price’s quote that her images are simple yet striking, simplicity of the child’s eyes is staring right through you. These two images, in my opinion, are both suggestive of controversial photography. The Migrant Mother is a documentary style photograph that can be seen to exploit the mother in the Photograph. Lange never found out her subject’s name, which was Florence Owens Thompson. Lange might not have intended to exploit Thompson but ended up doing so and showing Thompson in a light that she didn’t want to have shown. As one of her daughters, Viola said:

“She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that’s one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn’t show her in that light.”

 Viola Owens, when interviewed at the death of her mother, described that the image depicted a dark time for the family. Was it right for Lange to take this image and not to properly credit the source of the image? On the other hand Sally Mann intentionally wanted to create a set of highly controversial images, but to also depict the human nature. However was it right of Mann to take these pictures of her children nude, and quite often in provocative poses? Mann intentionally wanted to create Photographs that questioned the boundaries of what is considered acceptable.

Overall we have seen two very different female photographers, ending up approaching the theme of controversial photography. However these photographers had two very different intentions in what they wanted to produce. Personally I am very interested in both of these photographers and these two images are both some of my favourite images from these photographers. In regards to Lange’s The Migrant Mother I agree that the image is essentially exploiting Thompson. On the other hand Mann’s the Candy Cigarette was intentionally created to question what is acceptable and morally correct but we must still question its ethics on whether it was right of Mann to exploit her children as Art.


Dorothea Langue Research “She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that’s one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn’t show her in that light.” Viola Owens

Sally Mann Research:

“Few photographers of any time or place have matched Sally Mann’s steadiness of simple eyesight, her serene technical brilliance, and the clearly communicated eloquence she derives from her subjects, human and otherwise – subjects observed with an ardor that is all but indistinguishable from love.” Reynolds Price, TIME “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit is an exploitation of the parental role and I think it’s wrong.” Pat Robertson – Christian Broadcasting Network


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