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Friday, December 15, 2006

Print Offer: Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

Dorothea Lange, Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children, February 1936 [Florence Owens Thompson and her children, Nipomo, California; may actually have been taken in March 1936.] Popularly known as 'the Migrant Mother.'

This is not in any sense an "original print" of this iconic photograph, said to be the most widely disseminated and most recognized American image in the history of photography. Prints with actual provenance are essentially out of circulation, even to big-bucks collectors.You can buy a fiber-based print from the LoC for as little as $90, and they're not bad, but they look a little too much like what they are: prints produced in large numbers from a copy negative.

I just wanted the best representation I could get for my wall, that's all.

I started with the outstanding scan from the Library of Congress from Dorothea Lange's 4x5" Graflex SLR negative, and went to work. First, I researched how the image has been presented in different contexts. I found thirteen representations in my own library, including in the rare book In This Proud Land that was put together by FSA Director Roy Stryker at the end of his life, when he was 80.

I soon determined that there is no one "best" form of this picture. The many representations, even in the best books, are all over the map tonally and graphically, from dark, emotive interpretations to gentle, flat-contrast ones. Furthermore, since the picture was made for the U.S. government and was never owned by Dorothea Lange, there's not really an accepted vintage interpretation by the artist...that I know about, anyway.

So I decided, well, hey, I've been teaching and writing about photographic craft for photo magazines since 1988, and I used to earn my living as a custom exhibition printer. So I figured I'd just wipe my mind clear of everything I'd seen, start from the raw TIFF, and make my own best interpretation. Why not?

(Note that this isn't something you can't do yourself, if you have the equipment, time, and judgment. It might even be fun to make your own print and compare it to mine.)

Bill Ganzel's portrait of the four people in "Migrant Mother" in 1979
(see and hear more at the first link, above).

I started by magnifying the image to spot and repair the negative. Then I began balancing, burning and dodging digitally to get a natural balance. I tried various croppings, again referring to a variety of sources. Then I lived with the picture for a week and a half printed at various sizes and in a couple of different styles.

The interpretation I settled on for this print offer can be characterized by one word: Respectful. Although the end result is fairly heavily manipulated, I tried to stay close to the spirit of the era, the negative (even when fixing the defects!) and away from excessive or exaggerated interpretations.

The print is gorgeous—subtle, detailed, with rich mid-tones and great delicacy. A great way to "own" this important—and beautiful—photograph.

Not limited, but the offer may be withdrawn after a time. Prints will be mailed after Christmas.

GALLERY version. A permanent "carbon on cotton" print (carbon pigment ink on 100% cotton rag paper) in an "ideal" interpretation. Printed on a 9.5 x 13" sheet. Signed as "printed by" on the reverse.

$80, worldwide shipping included.




Blogger Impasse Lebouis said...


Just want to make sure, are there any copyright issues here?

I would guess not, since you're offering the print but your input on this would be greatly appreciated.


7:43 AM  
Blogger dingbat said...

Dorothea Lange was one of the best. My great-uncle was photographed by her in 1942. I'm glad I was still able to find it in a Google search:

I wonder if anybody still works with those Graflexes. I see them on Ebay once in a while, but can't figure out if the holders, or 'septums', accept regular 4x5 film.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"any copyright issues here?"

No, I checked. The image is in the public domain. You can read about it if you check around under the second link--images made for the Federal government cannot be copyrighted (Lange was in Federal employ when she made this picture) and the website states that only in rare situations are there any rights issues with FSA photographs, which belong to the American people.

You're right, I would never offer a print if there were even a suggestion of rights issues with it.


8:13 AM  
Blogger oren said...

I wonder if anybody still works with those Graflexes. I see them on Ebay once in a while, but can't figure out if the holders, or 'septums', accept regular 4x5 film.

Yes, they're very much still in use. The holders do accept regular 4x5 film. I have a 3.25x.4.25 Graflex with holders and film; loading the holders and taking it out for a test drive is high on my photographic "to do" list.

Even the younger generation is getting into the act.

9:53 AM  
Blogger H_Leighton said...

I have a 3.25 x 4.25 Graflex that someone did a very nice conversion to a 4 x 5 Graflok back.

The image is not full frame but it lets me use standard easy to find film and all the graflok accessories.

It's great fun to take out for pictures as it scares old women and young children. ;-)

Now I need a digital back for it that costs less than a car.

10:14 AM  
Blogger paperprint said...

I've followed your excellent blog for quite awhile. But I just need to comment about this print offer.

It may be completely legal, but is it ethical? You mention you just wanted the best print possible for your wall, but you are going beyond that, offering the print for sale. It is in the public domain, but I think 'ethically' it should only be purchased from the Library of Congress. Manipulate it as you wish, but don't offer someone else's creative effort for sale.

Again, it may be legal, but it continues the bad precedence of what can be done with whose imagery. Don't you think it is pushing the limits abit, and sending the wrong message out there to those that might do the same with your personal imagery, or mine? Yes, that would be illegal, but only a few prints for a wall, and a friend's wall, and a few more. No one will find out.

With intellectual property rights being challenged every day, and losing...your print sale adds to the muddying of the fine line that is protecting us all. This is just my opinion, but I have to trust my first impressions on this. When I opened the blog and saw this sale, something didn't smell right.

Thank you.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

"...I wonder if anybody still works with those Graflexes. I see them on Ebay once in a while, but can't figure out if the holders, or 'septums', accept regular 4x5 film...."

Here's an image I took of a guy who had one on a recent Mono Lake night photography trip I was on:

Tom's Graflex

11:46 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

With all due respect, you're wrong about this. The picture has always belonged to the American people, as the artist was well aware when she took it, and in any case Ms. Lange has been dead for more than 40 years. The only recognizable subject in the picture is also deceased (d. Sept. 16, 1983), and never attempted to place any sort of claim on the image while she was alive (although she did once say that she was annoyed that she never earned "a dime" from it). It has never been copyrighted, was never copyrightable, and it has no restrictions on it whatsoever. It's not only perfectly legal to sell prints, it's perfectly ethical as well. I applaud your scruples in this matter, but I think you're applying those scruples too broadly and indiscriminately in this case.

Of course, you're free to not buy one. (s)


11:54 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

P.S. Sorry, I misquoted--it was a penny, not a dime. She was quoted as saying she wished Lange hadn't taken her picture, because "I can't get a penny out of it."

However, the epitaph on her headstone reads, "Migrant Mother--A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood."


12:44 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Great idea, Mike. This was the first image I downloaded from the LOC, partly with an eye to benchmarking my printing setup with a superior scan, legally and for free. I did make several prints, but I found that it's not the kind of thing I wanted to display. For the record, this is the original retouched negative that we are most familiar with, in which a thumb has been removed from the tent pole at lower right. A scan of the copy of the unretouched neg is also on the web site.

Mike, did you study the LOC's scanned reference print as well? I think it's unattributed, but it looked in decent shape.

And let me take this opportunity to complement you on Monday's print. It's a wonderful image. I think it'd make a nice Christmas card, too, if you're into that. In the small jpegs at least it looks very much like a photorealistic painting.

paperprint, this photograph was commissioned on behalf of, paid for by, and is and always has been the property of, the people of the US. It's part of our dwindling communal property and heritage, and my feeling is that we should appreciate and share it as much as possible because--who knows?--it, too, may someday become "privatized". I'm not sure how people in other countries should feel about using it, but I don't think there are any legal issues there, either [OK now I see that there may be, but they are not spelled out. See:].

1:06 PM  
Blogger Erio said...

Ethics of course is a matter of personal preference. I was a bit surprised at the idea that you would be selling this image on your site as well. Legal matters aside and with respect to Dorothea Lange, your using the infamous image for personal monetary gain. You have plenty of your own images to sell. Wouldn't you rather bring your own work to the masses and generate income that way? For those that are in dire need having this photograph, I'm sure there are plenty of other options where the Library of Congress will be receiving some sort of income from those sales.s

1:21 PM  
Blogger richard said...

Is the ~1.8 megabytes the scan you started with? Actually very interesting, the original scan's darker than I have seen on various reproductions, although I have to admit I have never seen any "nice" print of it. I sort of like the darker, grittier mood. The look of concern in her face I think shows up even more....

2:14 PM  
Blogger about ian said...

This iconic photo is public property. I think Mike is doing a great service by making high-quality prints of it available. I'm happy to compensate him for his efforts. Mike's making prints of this photo, in my opinion, underscores the mission and success of the Library of Congress.

I bought one for my girlfriend, whose dad proudly refers to his parents as Okies. This controversy, in fact, makes me want to buy another.


2:26 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

No, I started with the 55.8 MB TIFF file.


2:30 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I do sell my own pictures. But I would like to offer other cool things as well.

Think of it as a reproduction or a poster. Just a very high-quality one.

We should be clear: we need to be aware of the rules, and follow them; aware of the REASONS for the rules, and respect them. I am doing both.


2:33 PM  
Blogger Just Plain Hugh said...

I love my Graflex, a super D I think.
It's one of my favorite "cameras I keep around but never seem to use any more" but it was my main camera for a couple years in the late 80s using Polaroid PN film and making 40" enlargements.

RE: the Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother prints

No one complains when someone performs a Shakespeare play or even one by David Mament. Same with Mozart, or even Leadbelly. Artists reinterpreting other's work is at the heart of the artistic tradition.

Todays New York Times has a neat story on a related theme.

3:56 PM  
Blogger tsea said...

I had to laugh when I first saw this post. I finally bought a printer and was thinking of drifting through the LoC and trying my hand at making prints of some of those famous pictures. Obviously I'm not the first (not to think I ever would be) and certainly not the last to try it! I don't think there's anything wrong with selling a good print considering the piles of books that sell from proudly displaying this photograph on the cover.

4:01 PM  
Blogger yossarian said...


Do You also think that people should not benefit from playing Mozart, because they benefit from someone elses work ?

Even if they have own work, they can still play Mozart (a public domain intelectual property), and sell records and tickets.

Please clarify your statement.

4:15 PM  
Blogger stevierose said...

For anyone who is interested in the history of the dust bowl era, I am most of the way through a great book called "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan which won the National Book Award for non-fiction this year. It is about the folks who stayed on the high plains rather than about the ones who left and became migrants. It is an extremely readable book, though difficult to read from an emotional standpoint. It has changed my view of that era. I hadn't realized that the dustbowl was as much a man-made environmental disaster as anything else.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Juan Buhler said...

I see the controversy this picture offer has started as a signal of the poor state of people's understanding of copyright law.

Copyright's first intent is to protect the people, while allowing creators to live off their work. Copyright also makes sure that eventually, works will go back to the society that indirectly made their creation possible.

This image is in the public domain. We all own it, in this case because "we the people" paid for it with our taxes many years ago. It is perfectly proper, and a good thing, that Mike is making good quality prints of it available. You can agree or disagree with how much he is charging (although $50 is a low price in my mind), but there should be no issues about the ethics or legality of what Mike is doing. More so: the beauty of the public domain means that if you don't think Mike's work is worth the fifty bucks, you can download the file and make our own print. Heck, offer it to the rest of us for $45 if you want.

The public domain is a great thing, people. Let's try not to fight against it, we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Adam Richardson said...

Well, I'd never bother producing a print of this. Clearly the photographer mis-focused as the hair of the child on the right is in focus but the mother's face is badly out of focus. And the level of detail overall is pretty poor compared to today's DSLR's. How did anyone manage before autofocus 10MP cameras came along?

[I'm kidding! Doing my best imiation of a DPReview forum troll...]

10:16 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Doing my best imiation of a DPReview forum troll..."

That's it, you're banned.


10:26 PM  
Blogger Dan Dill said...

Mike, it is a pleasure to look over your shoulder to see how you have interpreted the scan. Can you say a little about your approach? For example, have you used LightZone for this? Fiddling on my own, LightZone seems to make selective adjustment of tonalities and contrast relatively natural.

Thanks very much for this work.


8:54 AM  
Blogger arbus said...

Funny timing on this post. A few weeks ago I downloaded this image from LOC and made a black-only print on my Epson printer using MIS Eboni carbon ink. It does look very nice.

But to follow up on Adam's joking post, I was surprised that her face was not tack sharp. But he makes a good point that everybody is so obsessed with pixel peeping that we often forget that it's first and foremost about the image. Capa's D-Day images in not what anyone would call "razor" sharp. Ah, if only Capa had a AF 8FPS 16MP DSLR with a wide zoom, a Sandisk Extreme III card, Mac Laptop with Photoshop, etc ...

1:08 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

In terms of the copyright issues, the Library of Congress has their own statement which Mike basically paraphrases. Lange's photograph seems to be the equivalent of contemporary "work-for-hire", where the photographer does not retain copyright, but rather the client retains copyright. The LOC seems to interpret this in that the American people collectively hold copyright. If you're interested, you can read their statement here.

I would add that we're in the middle of a legal fight over what copyright actually means. On the one side, you have individual artists who aren't being compensated for their work or whose work is being altered or remixed without their (implicit or explicit) permission. On the other side, you have corporations extending copyright far beyond its original intent, or even privatizing public work or information. I don't think it's a black-and-white issue. Personally, I think I agree with Mike in this regard.

As to the "ethical" questions, weren't we all a little bit uncomfortable the first time we found out that Ansel's prints were actually being printed by one of his assistants? Even if that person is John Sexton or Alan Ross, it feels wrong, somehow. Most of us have gotten past that, though. Does is make a diffference that those prints were made under Ansel's supposed direction? Does it make a difference that the majority of Elliot Porter's work was printed by other people?

Mike, if you read this, I'd be interested in finding out how to search through and get access to other scans in the LOC...

Mark Hespenheide

9:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I know you were referencing contemporary work-for-hire, but this isn't a copyright issue at all. The Federal government of the United States can't hold copyright, by law. The FSA work (which was originally a mild form of propaganda, remember) has always been owned by the government and was never copyrighted or subject to copyright.


10:39 PM  
Blogger Curtis Clegg said...

Two things are of particular note on the page that Mike linked to at the beginning of this post:

1. The LOC clearly states that "There are no known restrictions on the use of Lange's 'Migrant Mother' images"

2. There is not an option anywhere on that page to purchase prints of this image. So for the historian or photo enthusiast, there are not many other options to own this piece of history.

Mike, when will you be selling prints of Elvis meeting Nixon? That image is the most requested image in the LOC collection.


8:11 PM  
Blogger robertwood said...


It would be great to be able use your Dorothea Lange print as a learning tool. Much is written about digital “fine art” prints these days. I am attempting to find my way in the sea of sometimes conflicting information. Alain Briot’s Printing Mastery is helpful; however, to actually hold a fine print in hand knowing how it came to be seems to be very valuable. Would you consider providing detailed information about your printing process with a print order?

Specifically of interest:

1.) Printer, Ink Set, Paper, Profile Origin, Rending Intent.

2.) RIP Use?

3.) Rough Guide, cursory overview, to Photoshop Tools used.

4.) Any Other Pertinent Miscellanea for the Novice.

Surely our prints will differ given the vast array of resources and preferences. The interesting thing is that we can start from the baseline LoC scan and with some assistance be guided to the critical choices available with a reference in hand. Then we can indeed as you so aptly stated “make your own print and compare it to mine”.

Thanks very much,


1:00 AM  

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