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An Exploration of Truth, Part 3

Human vision is a process of gathering. When we use our eyes we first choose a subject upon which to focus. This action can be deliberate or accidental depending on our mental consciousness. And though our main vision is focused on one particular point our peripheral vision takes into account all the rest. In John Berger’s, “Ways of Seeing,” he states,

Our vision is continually active, continually

moving, continually holding things in a circle

around itself, constituting what is present to

us as we are. [1]

We never stop seeing what is around the object of our focus. That information our peripheral vision sends to our brain is combined with that of our main vision to create a whole picture. A photograph does not allow for peripheral vision. There is only one focus, one point of view. The rest no longer exists.

Also, as we look around our surroundings we have the ability refocus our vision and change our position. We take in more information. The camera does not allow us to do that. The camera takes a three-dimensional space and condenses it onto a two-dimensional piece of paper or screen. Clarke writes of this dynamic,

We assume that we can look into a

photographic space, but we only look over and

across it. Roland Barthes rightly complained

about the frustration involved in the misplaced

assumption that the closer we look at a photograph,

the more we see. [2]

The human brain ultimately views the world as a film. When we look back our memories appear to us as a scene out of a movie. A still camera on the other hand gets much more specific. What the still camera captures within a photograph is usually less than one second out of time. What we see in a photograph is a moment so minute in the timeline of history that even the photographer while taking the photograph does not truly see it in its singularity.

Dorothea Lange’s photograph, “Migrant Mother,” is an icon in the photographic world. Lange’s purpose in taking and publishing the photograph was to inform the world of the plight of the migrant worker during the Great Depression. Within this photograph space is limited. Lange has chosen to close in on her subject, the mother. We assume she is a mother because of the children who burden her shoulders and lay in her arms. The lines on the mother’s face, the children’s dirty cheeks and the ragged clothes speak of the woman’s condition. But we do not know much more than that. We do not know how this woman came to be here. We do not know her name or the names of her children. Her husband, if he indeed existed does not exist within the confines of the photograph. We do not know where she is. We do not know where she is going. Nor can we, by looking at the image pinpoint an exact date. This information cannot fit into the image Lange has chosen to show us. The physical boundaries of Lange’s photograph prevent us from having a complete understanding of the subject.

We do not know what happened right before this moment nor do we know what happens after. The human face, in particular, is an element that is in always changing. Here we see concern and exhaustion but a moment before or after there could have been a smile or a look of anger.

We are unable to judge this look against others she has had. We are only able to know our subject to a point. Therefore, when this image is seen assumption plays a large part in the interpretation of the subject’s face. The photographer through the boundaries created by the photograph has been forced to narrow his focus to a moment that he himself can’t really see until after the image is taken. Clarke wrote,

Thus another paradox, for we look at a

photograph as recording time, as a historical

record, whereas invariably it stops time and,

in turn, takes its subject out of history.

Every photograph, in that sense, has no before

or after: it represents only the moment of its

own making. [3]


[1] Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcast Company and Penguin Books, 1972.

[2] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[3] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.


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