What if” Dorothea Lange had . . .

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, photographed for the Farm Security Administration in February of 1936, is one of the iconic images that has defined the Great Depression, despite the controversy that surrounds the events of the photograph. 

Over the years I have seen three different prints and each time I have seen it, I have been captivated, even though my position has wavered after seeing the entire series that were taken that day in Nipomo, California.

However I am not going to discuss the academic merits of “Migrant Mother.” Rather I was wondering What if Dorothea took the picture today, regardless if it were with a DSLR or a mobile device, I am more curious as to her contemporary post production esthetics.

While we have her notes and the other alternate photographs, all efforts are just speculations and can only be considered an exercise in intellectual inquisitiveness and nothing more. My What if curiosity certainly got the better of me and so I spent the evening working on one of the official “Migrant Mother” digital scans that are available from the US Library of Congress (LC-USF34-9058-C, retouched version) and imported the photograph into Google’s SnapSeed program.

Original version retouched version

There were a total of six steps the photograph underwent, with the first being the application of Tilt-Shift, set to a vertical oval and Blur to 100%. Brightness and Contrast set at zero, Contrast at minus 100%. This last setting helped remove some of the photographs original contrast and allowed for more detail in the dark areas to come forward. Also the area outside of the oval, softened the area but left the mother’s face and arm in focus.

Stage 1 - Tilt-Shift

In stage two, the aim was to bring attention to the mother’s face, especially since the faces of the children were sheltered from view, doing so allows the viewer to focus on mother’s plight. To achieve this, I selected Center Focus and opted for Old Lens to get the vignetting that renders the image more dramatically. While there is also a Blur setting with in Center Focus, it was not engaged.

Stage 2 - Center Focus

The next stage was more problematic and it became a judgement call. For I am not sure that Dorothea would have applied a Grunge filter and only worked on the lighting effects of the photograph. But I decided to gamble and use the effect to give a tint to the image. 

I selected May Creek, with Texture and Contrast set to minus 100%, while Saturation and Brightness at zero, so they would remain unchanged and only Style would have only a bearing on the image.

Stage 3 - Grunge

Because Grunge muted the over-all appearance of the photograph, the next step was to introduce the image to Drama, which back-lights  and brings back some of the detail and highlights that were lost by applying a Grunge effect.

By selecting the filter Dark, I carefully adjusted the Saturation of the effect to less then half, while Strength and Brightness remained neutral.

Stage 4 - Drama

While I did like the results and especially the tint, which now had been reduced, I wanted to maintain the photographs period appearance, including the introduction of a level of film grain, the next step was Black & White.

Since only a soft touch of film grain was desired, I selected the Neutral filter. This also meant to reduce the Contrast to minus 100%, and lower Brightness to minus 20%. The Grain was increased to 75%. No Color Filter was applied

Stage 5 - Black & White

For the final alteration of “Migrant Mother,” I felt that a frame would be appropriate. Yet a simple white border did not seem fitting. Even though I proposed in the beginning of this article the photograph was taken today, I also wanted to maintain the integrity of the images appearance, hence the film grain. Therefore, I selected a border that would resemble the edge of film held in a film holder.

Stage 6 - Frame

In the end, I confess I am not sure how much of Dorothea Lange’s influence in the post production might be evident in the final results. Yet the time spent manipulating her photograph was time well spent. For in the end, the results do reflect the hardships suffered by the migrant farmers seen in many of the other Farm Security Administration photographic collection. And then there is the book by The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck and subsequent film with its strictly and realistic visual depiction of the Great Depression.

So who is to say that the results presented here, might not have been very similar to what Dorothea herself would have seen fit to bring out in the photograph. 

Before and After

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