I was a history major, and I’ve been looking at historical photographs since I could hold a World Book. My mom subscribed to Look and Life magazines (Google them, kids) when I was a child, and as an adult I worked in a college library with access to the backlog of National Geographic. My favorite photographs include Arthur Rothstein’s iconic Dust Bowl shot of Oklahoma farmer Art Coble walking against the wind with his sons, Steve McCurry’s 1984 Afghan Girl cover for National Geographic, the great Edward S. Curtis’ 1901 portrait of the worn down Nez Perce Chief Joseph. Curtis had Joseph’s permission and McCurry the permission of the young girl, Sharbat Gula, to take their respective pictures. I’m not sure about Rothstein. He was part of the New Deal relief effort charged with documenting the Great Depression. Another esteemed New Deal photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, took another iconic image, that of forlorn migrant mother Florence Owens Thompson. The portrait was in ever history book I ever had. And the image bothered me for years. The names of Art Coble (the Dust Bowl farmer), Sharbat Gula (the young Afghan girl), and Florence Thompson (the migrant mother) haven’t always been associated with their respective photographs. That is a more recent courtesy, a concession to more sensitive times and a gesture to return some of the (figurative) ownership of the image to the subject. It was different for Chief Joseph, by the way. He was a celebrity of sorts in 1901 because the West had already passed to American pop culture with an almost reality TV-style fascination. However, Edward S. Curtis, who felt compelled to race to photograph the few pre-assimilation natives remaining in his lifetime, now carries with him an asterisk, a footnote, an apology to those offended by his devoting his life to documenting Native American culture from what may be perceived as a European American perspective. Well, that’s where we are now. We all know that. Yet for years, I was offended myself by Dorothea Lange’s photograph of “the migrant mother.” I felt as if Lange and her colleagues had ridden the train out from New York to steal poor people’s souls. However, on the other hand, I pour over Edward S. Curtis’ photographs with reverent fascination for both the photographed and the photographer, and my little speck of native blood does not make that okay with everyone. How, then, do photojournalists and fine art photographers deal with photographing strangers? Can we accept using an individual as a symbol, which is in essence what Mathew Brady did for the dead at Gettysburg and Jacob Riis for the slum dwellers of old New York? Do people even have such dear care for their image in the age of social media? You rarely see images of
people or portraits here on my little stage. That's because I'm still trying to figure it all out. This photograph, however, is that rare portrait from me. I call it Rare Specimen. I cook and do laundry for this kid, so he’s cool with it. And I had no way to ask the starfish.
Copyright RC 2015