In the United States, photography has for several decades served the aims of both art and social documentation (Adams, 1994, p. 489). As an art form, photography can present compelling, challenging images that engage viewers in both form and content -- as well as opportunities for photographers to experiment with form, content, and techniques of representation. This brief essay will compare and contrast two photographs with a similar subject matter (i.e., mothers and their children) that were taken by two very different photographers in two distinctly different historical periods. The first photograph is Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, California" (1936), and the second is W. Eugene Smith's "Tomoko in Her Bath" (1972).
Dorothea Lange was one of several American photographers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a "New Deal" federal agency that worked to resolve the myriad problems of displaced farm owners and workers during the Great Depression (Wood, 1989, p. 299). Under the direction of fellow photographer Roy Stryker, Lange and others (including Ben Shawn, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein) undertook a program of photographic documentation of the devastating effects of the Depression on rural areas to publicize the plight of farmers and their families (Wood, 1989, p. 299).
Unlike other FSA photographers such as Walker Evans, Lange was less interested in formal abstraction than in conveying a social message (Adams, 1994, p. 490). Lange was a social and political reformer who employed her camera and her artistic vision to create images that were inherently ideological in impact. H.W. Janson (1986, p. 776) states that "While the FSA photographers presented a balanced and objective view, most of them were also reformers whose work responded to the social problems that confronted them." Lange was such a photographer, and her documentary photographs represent the so-called "heroic age" in photography.