MoMA Photography ThemeGilles Peress. Untitled (Boy with Hand to
Head). 1994.How are these images similar? How are they
different?Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California.
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Since its invention in 1839, photography has made radical
contributions to the evolution of visual representation. The medium
brought with it the ability to capture motion, document a
split-second of time, and, thanks to its inherent reproducibility,
allowed for the wide circulation of images. From the beginning,
there has been no single method for taking photographs. Photography
appears to be an easy activity, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson
observed. In fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the
only common denominator among its practitioners is their
instrument. Photographs are made for a variety of purposes and
disciplines, including portraiture, science, travel, journalism,
propaganda, and art. The medium continues to be reinvented and
rethought, shaped by technological advances in equipment and
processing and the ever-changing cultural and social dialogues
surrounding its use. *Share this information with your
This photograph shows a scene from The Civil War. The Civil War
in the United States (1861-1865) was one of the first wars to be
covered by the relatively new invention of photography. Because of
the still laborious and lengthy process of taking and developing
photographs, early war photographers were limited to taking
photographs of the aftermath of battles, campsites or preparations
for battle rather than the action during the battles. Alexander
Gardner was one of the most prolific photographers during The Civil
How do you think seeing photographic images of the war might
have changed the American publics experience of the war?
This photograph is the subject of controversy because later
analysis has revealed that Gardner staged the image to intensify
the emotional effects it would have on the viewer. He moved the
corpse of the dead solider and propped up his head so that it faced
the camera and placed a rifle next to the solider that was actually
one Gardner carried with him. The practice of staging scenes in
this fashion was not uncommon at that time.
Does knowing that Gardner staged this photograph make it less of
a visual, historic document of The Civil War to you?
Alexander Gardner. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg from
Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865). July 1863.
Albumen silver print, 7 x 9" (17.8 x 22.9 cm). Anonymous gift
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Jacob Riis was a journalist, social activist, and photographer
in the late 1800s in New York City. In 1878 Riis became a police
reporter for the New York Tribune newspaper and was assigned to the
area known as Mulberry Bend where the worst slums and tenements in
the city were. Riis began to take photographs documenting the
terrible living conditions. Photographs like Lodgers in Bayard
Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot show tenement dwellers caught in
candid moments, highlighting the crowded, dirty, and dangerous
situations they lived in.
Riis gave magic lantern lectures using his photographs in
addition to using them in conjunction with his articles and
eventually published them in the successful 1890 book, How the
Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements. Despite controversy
over his techniques and agenda, Riis photographs are widely
credited as helping to bring attention and improvements to the
degrading conditions in the tenements.
Why do you think Riiss photographs of tenement dwellers were
more effective in communicating his social reform agenda than the
articles he wrote on the subject?
Jacob August Riis. Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents
a Spot. 1889. Gelatin silver print, printed 1957, 6 3/16 x 4 3/4"
(15.7 x 12 cm). Gift of the Museum of the City of New York *Share
this information with your students:
Dorothea Lange took this photograph in 1936, while she was
employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document
camps of migratory farm laborers escaping dustbowl conditions and
battling poverty in California during the Great Depression. She
came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo,
What does the facial expression and gesture of the central
How do you think a photograph like this may be helpful to raise
awareness or sympathy of the plight of this mother and others
suffering from the Great Depression?
Why do you think the government would commission something like
The government commissioned work like this by the FSA to raise
awareness of the plight of farmers during the Depression and also
to prevent something like this from happening again.
Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936Gelatin
silver print, 11 1/8 x 8 9/16 (28.3 x 21.8 cm). Purchase
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Gilles Peress is a French photojournalist who has documented
events of conflict, revolution, and war all over the world. These
photograph shows victims of the Rwandan genocide, which occurred in
1994. The genocide was the result of long simmering conflicts
between the two major ethnic groups in the country, the Tutsi and
the Hutu. In a relatively short period of time approximately
800,000 Tutsi were murdered. These haunting and disturbing
photographs show the gruesome aftermath and horrific human
suffering of this event. Peress has said I dont care so much
anymore about good photography; I am gathering evidence for
history. These powerful images show photographys ability to serve
as a witness to unspeakable moments in human history.
Why do you think the photographer might have wanted the boy to
look directly into the camera?
Respond to the photographers statement about gathering evidence
for history. How might this image be evidence for history?
Gilles Peress. Untitled (boy with hand to head). 1994Gelatin
silver print, 36 x 55" (91.4 x 139.7cm). Gift of Susan and Peter
MacGill. 2012 Giles Peress *Share this information with your
Compare the composition, pose, body language, and expression of
the subjects of these two photographs taken almost sixty years
apart. How are they similar and how are they different?
Compare the intentions of the respective photographers. Peress
has said he uses photography to gather evidence for history. Langes
boss at the FSA, Rexford Guy Tugwell said: It seemed important to
record the incredible events of those years; and the best way was
to photograph them. Thinking about these two statements, discuss
how the medium of photography can be used as evidence for
Why do you think photography has been so effective in this way?
Do you think a written article would be as effective in
communicating the two historic events shown in these photographs?
Why or why not?
Gilles Peress. Untitled. 1994. Gelatin silver print, 36 x 55"
(91.4 x 139.7 cm). Gift of Susan and Peter MacGill. 2012 Gilles
Dorothea Lange. "A Destitute Mother: The Type Aided by the WPA.
1936. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 7 11/16" (25.5 x 19.6 cm). The New
York Times Collection2034.2001