The iconic photo “Migrant Mother” was “Photoshopped”

Dec 1, 2018

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

The iconic photo “Migrant Mother” was “Photoshopped”

Dec 1, 2018

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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There is hardly anyone who doesn’t know about “Migrant Mother,” an iconic photo by Dorothea Lange. The 1936 portrait depicts Florence Owens Thompson and her children, and there are many true and untrue facts we’ve heard about it. But did you know it was altered? Or “photoshopped,” as we tend to say nowadays? Thanks to a new book from the Museum of Modern Art, this interesting fact has recently seen the light of day.

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother was written by Sarah Meister, a photography curator at MoMA. In addition to the already known facts, this book contains many new ones and it tells about some little-explored details. And among them, there is the story of “the missing thumb,” which was at some point edited out from the image.

The original image with “the missing thumb”
The print of Library of Congress, ©Dorothea Lange
The altered version of “Migrant Mother”, ©Dorothea Lange

As The New York Times writes, Lange had an assistant retouch the negative in 1939 and remove Thompson’s thumb from the bottom right corner. The reason for this was simple: the photographer thought it was a distraction and she reportedly didn’t have any doubts that it should be removed. However, Roy Stryker, Lange’s boss at the Farm Security Administration, wasn’t happy about her decision. He believed that it compromised the authenticity of the photo and of his whole F.S.A. documentary project.

In her book, Sarah Meister argues about different interpretations of the iconic image. For some people, it represents “the pinnacle of motherhood,” for the others, it represents “represent the depth of the Depression,” or “a suppressing of racial identity.” It’s important, however, to establish the facts and stick to them, regardless of the interpretation.

Generally speaking, documentary images like this shouldn’t be altered, because they need to reflect a real situation. However, I believe that editing out the thumb doesn’t affect the story Lange captured or the viewers’ interpretation. It wouldn’t add to the story even if it were left in place. Since we now know that it was removed from the negative, it helps us determine whether a print was made before or after 1939, and it’s definitely an interesting fact about the well-known image.

[via The New York Times]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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34 responses to “The iconic photo “Migrant Mother” was “Photoshopped””

  1. Luigi Barbano Avatar
    Luigi Barbano

    unethical… what about how much is unethical to be payed with taxpayers money, by the government FSA, to create propaganda material for the political goal to increase the power of the government to steal more taxpayers money?
    Finger retouched or not we have to focus on what the image was created for if we want to talk about ethic.

    1. Josh Weilepp Avatar
      Josh Weilepp

      Um…..wtf are you going on about conspiracy guy

    2. Luigi Barbano Avatar
      Luigi Barbano

      no conspiracy, she was payed by the FSA to promote Roosvelt’s New Deal. It is history, not conspiracy, and personally I think is 100% non ethical.

    3. Luigi Barbano Avatar
      Luigi Barbano

      Alexander L. Harris no matter the goal, still is wrong.

      1. billt47 Avatar
        billt47

        So is advertising unethical? Like advertising for the armed services to encourage people to join? Or ads for Medicaid, to encourage eligible people to sign up? Or in general advertising for government programs or services, to let people know that they exist and how to access them? These are all paid for with taxpayers’ money.

  2. Terri Gold Avatar
    Terri Gold

    Yes. It was unethical.

  3. Franco Kailsan Avatar
    Franco Kailsan

    It was not necessary to remove the thumb. The thumb was not a distraction at all. It was not unethical either because removing it does not change the message the picture conveyed.
    However, I would have liked to be informed that the thumb was removed.
    That is a thumb right???!

  4. Josh Weilepp Avatar
    Josh Weilepp

    You don’t edit negatives. You edit prints. Prints are subjective. Paper is subjective. Get over it you digital fools.

    1. Josh Weilepp Avatar
      Josh Weilepp

      I don’t need to thanks. Also I know more than the writers of this article about this original negative/print and would rather leave it at that.

    2. Ian Brace Avatar
      Ian Brace

      Apart from you’re wrong.

    3. Jasmijn Decuyper Avatar
      Jasmijn Decuyper

      Negatives were totally edited, drawn on, painted over, cut apart and pasted together. Someone with your background should know that and not falsely state otherwise (in a rather arrogant way)

    4. Josh Weilepp Avatar
      Josh Weilepp

      I do know that. And that has nothing to do with this photo which the negative was not manipulated. The “original” in this article is not the original it is just subjective lab print and the print everyone is used to seeing is just an artists subjective interpretation. The negative was not manipulated the print was.

  5. Brant Dempster Avatar
    Brant Dempster

    I will forever see the colored over thumb from now on.

    1. Gael Gahewir Avatar
      Gael Gahewir

      And the index finger left in place right?

  6. Josh Weilepp Avatar
    Josh Weilepp

    I don’t need to thanks. Also I know more than the writers of this article about this original negative/print and would rather leave it at that.

  7. Gary Streiffer Avatar
    Gary Streiffer

    I’m not sure about unethical. My opinion is it’s been an iconic photo for 70+ years who am I to change it. While we’re at it let’s change The Creation of Adam, The Mona Lisa and The Starry Night.

  8. Jim Jennings Avatar
    Jim Jennings

    It is her photo, she can do what she wants as long as it’s not distorting the truth.

  9. Melvin Chicas Avatar
    Melvin Chicas

    Nothing we don’t already do.

  10. Todd Sipes Avatar
    Todd Sipes

    Who cares?

    1. Allen Barrett Avatar
      Allen Barrett

      Todd Sipes enough for you to post so I’d say, you do!

    2. Todd Sipes Avatar
      Todd Sipes

      Allen Barrett sick burn, bro.

  11. Ronnie Bautista Avatar
    Ronnie Bautista

    Research Jerry Uelsmann. He was doing photoshop with multiple enlargers on a single piece of photo paper. Way ahead of his time

  12. Arthur_P_Dent Avatar
    Arthur_P_Dent

    This is not exactly news.

  13. Keith A Varley Avatar
    Keith A Varley

    I don’t consider it unethical, it was after all, the photographers decision and neither adds nor takes away from the image (well except that digit) which is now a ghost.

    It isn’t a distraction for me in the original image.

  14. Anthony Frawley Avatar
    Anthony Frawley

    I HATE edited photos. I think a true photo tells a story and should be done as it really is. I am a photographer and find edited photos like this “fake” and dont do it myself. That being said, that is why many people make a lot of money doing photography, and I have a regular job. I dont care for the practice, but it is what it is, and has been that way FOREVER. so… whateves….

    1. Robert Ausura Avatar
      Robert Ausura

      Photographers are artists and should be able to do what other artists do. Painters, for example. When Monet painted his iconic masterpieces, he freely eliminated ugly shadows, misshapen branches, background distractions. In fact, his impressionist style was at that time as far from “reality” as it could be. Purists scowled, of course, but today Impressionist paintings are among the most treasured in the world. Ansel Adams and other “old school” masters regularly developed lightroom techniques to enhance (“edit”) their masterpieces. No one complained because no one noticed. But today’s photographers have a different vision of photography and what it can do, and though I think many of our community’s experiments fall short, I’m also excited that we finally have a full set of tools to, as the painters can, go directly from vision to artwork.

  15. Carlos Guerra Avatar
    Carlos Guerra

    WHICH “iconoc” photo was not photoshoped ???❓

  16. Alan Amos Avatar
    Alan Amos

    The image itself and the set it was part of did what they were designed to do.

  17. Anthony Frawley Avatar
    Anthony Frawley

    My best photo i ever took was all luck, i walked past an alley in India, Turned my camera to the right, and clicked and kept walking… i ended up with a little 4 or so year old girl walking towards me with her finger in the mouth with laundry on each side of her… ethical or luck or whatever…. a man (0r woman) has to eat.

  18. Jewels Vern Avatar
    Jewels Vern

    It is easy to google the statement made by the girl in the picture. You will notice that most of the country had no such problems. Only the down-and-outers got the attention, and we have been led to believe the whole country was that way. In fact, the depression era had many signs of prosperity such as increased consumption of meat and butter and increased charitable donations.

  19. BevP Avatar
    BevP

    Even the “original print” was edited, if you consider cropping to be editing.

  20. Nick M Avatar
    Nick M

    Well done for COMPLETELY missing the point, which was that the woman was nothing to do with any depression and was simply waiting at the side of the road while her car’s tyre was being mended!
    As I understand it, Lange saw a great image and took the shot.
    The thumb is irrelevant, as the ethics of the wrong caption being applied to a well-to-do woman are far more scandalous.

  21. Renlish Avatar
    Renlish

    The thumb hasn’t been removed. It’s been selectively burned in/dodged out – you can still see it. People have been doing this, quite literally, since photography began. I learned this technique, along with painting over and cutting up negatives in my photography classes at school. Ansel Adams is well known for his editing work. A plethora of olde timey photographers did this too.

    Editing is subjective. I don’t mind the thumb in the original but I could see that some might find it annoying. You want to be drawn to the face of the woman. The thumb sticks out.