Imagine that you are walking down the street. A man, a stranger, approaches, walking in the other direction. He makes brief eye contact and passes on. It occurs to you suddenly that he is going to relate this encounter to his friends later. He is going to tell them something, you don't know what, about you, about this momentary encounter. You hope, probably, that he will make of you a good report. You hope he will make you look good.
The same aspiration would arise if we suddenly understood that an observer intended to paint us, to draw us, to write a story about us.
The critical point here is that we do not have these epiphanies. It does not occur to us that this stranger or that will be making a report on us, although most of us do it to someone else routinely. I saw this guy downtown today..
The presence of the camera changes that. We are immediately, acutely, aware that someone is going to report on us. They're taking.. oop, now they've got a picture of me. Our aspiration to be reported on positively instantly makes itself known. This, combined with the residual mystical feelings of the camera as soul-stealer, may make us nervous. We want it to be a good picture, and we know, because we're not visually illiterate and because the power of the photograph is finite, that the picture will not make as good a report of us as we desire. It will, likely, fall short.
Some people, a few, perhaps the vain, quite like the experience. It is as if the thrill of being gossiped about outweighs the possible content of that gossip. These people are not the majority.
Published the other day in the LA Review of Books: "Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange and the Truth of Photography." The author spends a depressing amount of time pointlessly and badly arguing that Lange's claim — in a story we already know to be wrong — that she spent only 10 minutes shooting Florence Owens is false.
But what the author really wants to bang on about is how false the picture is, and how awful Lange was to take it, and so on. The usual nonsense.
We hear, again, how disappointed the family was in the picture, how Owens was uncomfortable with her iconic status, and how the picture showed only a narrow slice of Owens, a slice the family felt was a negative one. It is surely true that the family felt Lange had made a bad report of their mother, and they felt accordingly cheated by that. At any rate, this is what they genuinely feel now, and recall feeling then, decades after the fact. Let us try not to forget that memory is a bit plastic, and there are things that are simply lost forever, like tears in rain (as Roy would tell us.)
The standard pitch by academic types is that people are routinely tricked by the idea of the photograph. People expect it to reveal truth, completeness. If photographed, a person expects that the photograph will show they truly and completely, well maybe with the naughtiness hidden. The photographer is therefore a trickster and a cheat, because as only all us super-duper erudite types know, the photograph is a big fat liar.
The standard pitch is garbage. Everyone knows that the photo is a slice, a narrow slice. Open a popular magazine and ask anyone does Taylor Swift always look like that? and they will laugh and assure you that the opposite is true. Everyone knows, fairly well, what the boundaries of the photograph are. Everyone expects to be disappointed by photographs of themselves, it's a cliche. What is unusual is to actually like a picture of yourself.
What Florence Owens and her family experienced was that same old disappointment, which is rooted in the aspiration to be reported on well. The photograph has nothing much to do with it, it is the report which matters. The camera is only the unmistakable harbinger of the report to be made. Had someone walked about the place and then written a piece about "Florence Owens, destitute pea picker, nursing her baby in full view of the public, looked like nothing if not a filthy savage" they would have been just as incensed, albeit over a shorter interval of time.
In fact, the photograph makes a wonderful report of Florence Owens, she looks like an amazing human being. This does not matter much to the family, who see her only as poor. I get it, to be forever hitched to the wagon of poverty is no delight. There is surely a strange conflict here, a desire to tell the world "that's my mum in the famous picture!" but also to deny it, lest the stigma of poverty get on you.
Anyways, the idea that the Owens family was somehow misled here, was tricked, was cheated, is I think dicey at best.
They are disappointed, in the same way that we are disappointed by the photo on our driver's license, albeit on a larger scale. We do not expect the driver's licence to reveal our wonderful qualities, we expect it to be just what it turns out to be. There is no trickery here, there is disappointment. That disappointment is real, justified, and practically universal among the photographed.
Dressing this disappointment up as trickery strikes me as a scam to justify a puritanical impulse to wag a finger and tell people not to photograph other people.