This article intends to debate the notion of photographic icon based on the path taken by one single image. Made by David Seymour “Chim” along with many others, the image of a nursing mother from Estremadura was part of a photographic reportage made before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in May 1936. But its life both as an object and as a symbolic image went a longer path. The original frame, a wider view of a mass gathering, was cropped and reframed – not always with the photographer’s consent – to close on the woman’s face and constricted expression. This cropped image went through a series of reappropriations, appearing in propaganda material such as photomontages, posters, etc., mostly linked to the suffering of civilians caused by fascism. Many months after its original publication, it finally became a Republican symbol, sometimes even capable of representing the Spanish Civil War as a historical event. Chim’s photograph can therefore be compared to some few other iconic images such as the Migrant Mother, made by Dorothea Lange in the same year of 1936 in the USA. Both photographs have survived in contemporary public memory and visual culture as iconic objects charged with symbolic meanings.
War photography; Visual culture; Photographic icon.
In 1936 David Seymour “Chim”1 took a photograph in Estremadura, Spain. During the next months and years, it became known as an icon of documentary photography and photojournalism [Image 1]. This image portrays a woman looking up, with her face partially illuminated by a hard light. Her forehead is frowning and her mouth is slightly opened. She carries a child to her chest, feeding the baby among several faces of children and adults. This image was originally part of a photographic reportage published in the French magazine Regards2 , which employed Chim at that time. It became, however, one of the most symbolic images of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) Republican side. The pathway taken by this specific image until it was established as an icon is not an obvious one. As it was published in different magazines and in different contexts, both its format and meaning were subjected to modifications. It was turned into a much broader symbolic message than it was originally intended to be.
Image 1. Page of the book David Seymour – “Chim”, presenting the Estremadura photograph with the mistaken caption, “Air raid over Barcelona, 1938”
Image 2. Photomontage made with Chim’s image, front cover of the booklet Madrid, 1937.
Chim was already in Spain when, during the night of July 17th to 18th, 1936, the military insurrection aiming to end the leftist government of the Republican Popular Front started the civil war. He was travelling that country with writer Georges Soria reporting to Regards on the works of the Popular Front government, which had achieved a significant victory in the legislative elections few weeks before. The French magazine editorial line intended to publicize the Republic’s social improvements, and the Estremadura mother photograph was made in a recently collectivised land during a popular meeting in April or May 1936. It was made, therefore, two months prior to the beginning of the war, and its origin could not have conveyed the meanings that were later attributed to it. Regarding its format, in 2006 the negative film strip – which was lost since the beginnings of the Second World War – was recovered, showing that Chim had framed the original image as an open view and that it was later cropped (YOUNG, 2010, vol. 2 p. 16).
In the May 14th issue of Regards, this photograph appears alongside others of the same meeting, as well as some showing the fields being worked, in a double page story written by Soria. In this first appearance, its frame is very close to the original shot [Image 3]. In this same format this image was also published in the German magazine Arbeiter Illustrirte Zeitung (AIZ) a few days after the beginning of the civil war. In this issue it was placed in a warlike context, but not yet suggesting an aerial attack, which it would soon do – after only ten days of fighting there was no way of knowing the fundamental role this kind of attack would have later in the conflict. The biggest transformation in the use of this image happened in 1937, when it appeared significantly cropped on the front page of the booklet Madrid [Image 2]. Here it was used in a photomontage which focused on the mother’s concerned face, and opposed it to fighting planes in an attack formation, and a bomb with the Nazi swastika, building a strong relation between the woman’s upward regard and the war. As the original film strip disappeared at some point near the end of the Spanish War and the beginning of the Second World War, the symbolic meaning of the air raid menace adhered to the image in the course of time. This a posteriori meaning is confirmed in a book with Chim’s photos published in 1974 by ICP – the International Center of Photography, the New York based institution which holds his archives. Below the cropped version of the photograph the book provides not only the wrong caption, but also the wrong date – it reads “Air raid over Barcelona, 1938” [Image 1] (1974, p. 43).
.Image 3. Pages of the 1936 May 14th issue of Regards.
The original frame already called our attention to the nursing mother. She is the focal point, she is the only one receiving direct light, standing out from the other elements in the composition. However, there are other elements in this well filled composition. On the right side of the image, closest to us, we can see a young boy’s right eye and shoulder, as well as part of a man’s hat, eye and arms behind him. At the same time, behind the mother and child there is a multitude of heads that fill almost the entire frame. This confusion of people, standing too close, entering the composition in a chaotic, random way creates the feeling that the photographer was in the very centre of the event, not staging or organizing the scene, but reporting it with a maximum of proximity and reality.
The cropping closed the image on the mother’s face, leaving out a man and boy who appeared partially on the right side; a girl’s face in the inferior left corner; the crowd on the back. Now the mother fills almost the entire frame. Her shoulder marks the middle of the frame, with her face on the upper part, and the nursing child on the bottom half. Four children who were very close to her have their faces only partially visible. Two of them look upwards, two look directly at the photographer.
This new frame created by the cropping called the attention to the woman’s facial expression, who, as well as the two children, looks up. It is possible to infer that when the shot was made, she was looking up to see someone conducting the meeting, in a higher position, since the original frame allows us to see that most of the people in the gathering are also looking towards the same direction. We can also see in the broader view, and in other photographs in the same story [Image 3], that her frowned face is similar to the faces of other members of the mass gathering, who are exposed to the sun. The article, which was written by Georges Soria, is called “L’Espagne nouvelle au travail”. On the top left of the double page, along with the titles, there are photographs of the Spanish fields being worked. On the right page other shots of the meeting are showed: one of young people escorting the speaker to the meeting place, according to the caption, and a composition of three photographs. This composition gives a sense of a zoom out: one image is a close on the faces of an older woman and two men, without the background; the slightly cropped photo of the mother; and a much open shot of the crowd attending the meeting. The caption of the first two images says: “Un meeting a quelques dizaines de kilomètres de Badajoz”, while the last one is captioned as “Il n’y a pas un pays où l’on écoute un orateur avec autant de ferveur qu’en Espagne”.
Taken out of its original context, however, the mother’s expression is no longer one of a fervour listening. With the unfolding of the war the cropped Estremadura mother image gained new meanings, as General Franco’s side, with the help of Nazi German fighting planes, adopted the strategy, almost unheard of until then, of bombing civilian targets. This strategy had one of its higher moments in the aerial bombing that destroyed the town of Guernica on April 26th, 1937 – same year of the publication of the Madrid booklet. The act of looking upwards started then to be a heavier, darker symbol, evoking this menace. At the same time, by closing the image on the facial expression of mother with the child, an aesthetic association can be made between this mother and the traditional representation of the Christian madona with a child, surrounded by little puti. Chim’s cropped photograph becomes therefore a symbolic reference to the great suffering brought to the Spanish population by the war, by an enemy that did not have a human scale, but a technological and highly lethal one, and fought a conflict that did not respect civil and frontline delimitations, attacking both combatants and non-combatants.
Probably both the cropping and the apocryphal meaning of the image happened without the photographer’s knowledge or participation. Besides the great power image editors had when dealing with photographers’ works, it was also common for photographers working in war zones to send their exposed films to be developed far from where they were shot. Most of the times, they did not have contact with the resulting images, nor any influence on how they would be published. Despite the high probability of not having any involvement in the successive croppings of his photograph, culminating with the version published on the front cover of Madrid, it is possible to determine that Chim later acknowledged this interference in the original frame, since this version, which appears in the book published by ICP was distributed by Magnum Photos Inc, agency co-founded by Chim in 1947 [Image 1] (NAGGAR in LUBEN, 2012, p. 22).
When Chim took that shot, he was not yet known as a photographic reporter outside the left French press. The impact and repercussion attained by this photograph, both when it was first published and during its prolonged visibility, was significant for Chim’s career, because he was just beginning to develop his photographic sensibilities and practice. During his successful career he would frequently revisit some of the themes already present in this image. In fact, the most known image, the cropped frame, has many of the most important and recurring visual aspects of the work that followed it – not only on this particular war, but in his lifetime work. We can say that there is a kind of reverberation effect between that cropped image and his future photographic work. It was not shot to be deliberately transformed into a visual icon, but its singular path until it became one is representative of the specific characteristics of this kind of image.
According to a semiological point of view it is part of the photographic image’s own nature the possibility of becoming an icon. When Philippe Dubois brought to the realm of photography the categories established by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th century, he opposed two fundamental aspects of this type of image: the indexical and the iconic3. The indexical aspect of photography would manifest itself in the fact that it is necessarily linked, by a physical connection, to something that at some moment and at some place really existed. The iconic character, however, allows the image to surpass this physical relation with its object. An iconic sign is autonomous, referring, through its aesthetical characteristics, to something real or imagined, for instance a concept or an idea. In the particular case of photographic images, according to Dubois this iconic character would be the beginning of the death of the indexical character. That is, it would emerge precisely when, as the photograph is being read, it would stop referring directly to its specific object and become a representation of something more comprehensive, more capable of impregnating people’s memories, and therefore losing its temporal connection (DUBOIS, 1990, p. 121).
Despite this ontological quality, the term icon is now frequently used by photographers, public and critics meaning not all, but specific images. The above mentioned characteristics of the iconic sign can be applied to some photographs considered as documentary photography and photographic reportage icons. In the book No Caption Needed photojournalism is seen as a public art form that has an active role in negotiating social identities in the social-democratic world. Its authors, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites define these documentary images considered icons:
To make that common usage both explicit and more focused, we define photojournalistic icons as those photographic images appearing in print, electronic, or digital media that are widely recognized and remembered, are understood to be representations of historically significant events, activate strong emotional identification or response, and are reproduced across a range of media, genres, or topics (HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, p. 27).
The iconic sign’s expansion of meanings in face of the indexical character is recognised is this definition. In this case, the photographic icon surpasses not only its original making conditions but its original circulation as well, as it is associated with the representation of an event, not only its particular object, and moves in different medias, with different purposes. To these same authors, icon photographs are the transformation of the banal as well as the disturbance in moments of visual eloquence (HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, p. 3). This discourse would be created from a visual language and aesthetic common to the culture in which the photograph is produced and to which it is destined (HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, pp. 34-35).
Chim’s photographic work has been so close to a specific political culture that, despite the fact that it was not shot during the war, his image –as well as himself – incorporated the new meanings attributed to it with the beginning of the conflict. Talking about this image, Susan Sontag estated that “normally, if there is some distance relating to the theme, what a photograph ‘says’ can be read in many ways. Sooner or later, one reads in it what it should be saying” (SONTAG, 2003, p. 28). The gesture we see the Estremadura mother doing became, in the following months and years, a visual topos in war photography. This gesture inaugurated by that mother comes as an answer to the challenge imposed by modern war to the photographic image, establishing a very narratively powerful representation. Even though it was not its original goal, as time passed this photograph started to bring to a human dimension the modern war and the death caused by it, which had then become almost invisible due to the decisive role of technology in warfare.
Chim’s cropped photograph of the mother from Estremadura has built over the time this expansion of meaning characteristic to image icons. Another characteristic of an icon can also be observed in this photograph: as it was mentioned above, there is a presence of a traditional aesthetic paradigm, of a conventional way of visual representation of a known subject4. Even in the original, broader image – although in a lesser degree than in the cropped one – there is a clear proximity between the mother nursing her child and traditional religious representations, namely the Christian Holy Mary nursing her son Jesus, and all its inherent meanings, as the Christ mother’s selflessness, and his purity and innocence. This visual tradition of the madona, inherited from the fine arts, is not foreign to documental photography and can be equally found in other iconic images.
One of the biggest icons of North-American photography is Migrant mother, as Dorothea Lange’s most known photo became known5 [Image 4]. This mother was photographed in February 1936, few weeks before Chim took his. She carries a toddler on her lap, and comforts two children not much older on her shoulders. Lange worked for the Historic Section of the Resettlement Administration (latter renamed Farm Security Administration, or FSA) since its earlier days, in 1935. It was organised by Roy Stryker with the purpose of photographically documenting the precarious living conditions and the effects of the great economic depression on the USA rural workers6. The migrant mother photographed by Lange did not have any work because bad weather had ruined the pea crop. According to the photographer, she was desperate for not being able to feed her family (GOLDBERG, 1991, p. 137). Lange’s intentions with this work – calling attention and denouncing the poor life conditions of part of the population who were not well assisted by the government – was opposed to Chim’s intentions when he shot Spaniards before the war, which were to document and publicise the Republican good care towards land workers, distributing collectivised land. These two mothers in almost opposite situations, photographed a few weeks apart, were nevertheless brought closer by their portraits. The meanings attributed to their portraits during the years were similar as both photographs related to the aesthetic tradition of the Christian madona with child visual representation.
Image 4. Dorothea Lange. Migrant mother. USA, 1936.
As it happened with Chim’s photograph, Lange’s was reprinted in varied medias. Still in 1936, it appeared in the magazine Survey Graphic, and was included in the U.S. Camera exhibition with the year’s top photographs, that toured the USA and Europe, being published in its yearbook as well. In 1938 this and other images by Lange appeared in the book Land of Free, by Archibald MacLeish (GOLDBERG, 1991, p. 137). Again, as it had happened with Chim’s image, the Migrant mother was at times used in photomontages or reproductions in which some of its original aspects were altered. During the civil rights campaigns for minorities and immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s this photograph reappeared as a sketch published on the front cover of a 1964 mothers day special issue of the magazine Bohemia Venezoelana [Image 5]. In this re-appropriation, one of the children’s faces was turned, he now looks at us holding his mother as well as some flowers. The poverty and helplessness of this 1930s migrant land worker is in this way transmitted to the oppressed Latin immigrants’ community. On the fourth cover of a 1973 issue of the magazine Black Panthers’ Newspaper, the migrant mother and her children are sketched as African-Americans, and the written caption below it states very clearly the association between this mother and the suffering caused by poverty, only the poverty now is the poverty of the black people in the USA: “Poverty is a crime, and our people are the victims” (GOLDBERG, 1991, p. 137) [Image 6]. In neither case Dorothea Lange received any image credit.
Image 5. Sketch published in the front cover of the magazine Bohemia venezoelana. USA, 1964.
Image 6. Forth cover of the magazine Black Panthers’ Newspaper. USA, 1973.
Image 7. Diana Thorne. Spanish Mother, The Terror of 1938. Lithograph, 1939.
In fact, one of the main characteristics that allowed Lange’s photograph to be seen as an iconic image was precisely its capacity to cover broader meanings beyond its original making conditions. In 1973, Roy Stryker stated that, for him, this quality was the main feature of the image, what made it so special, successfully portraying the goals aimed by the institution he and the photographer worked at that time:
To me, it was the picture of Farm Security. The others were marvelous, but that was special. … So many times I’d asked myself what is she thinking? She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal. (Apud HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, p. 55)
Many years before that assessment, when the photograph was just made and did not have enough time to become immortal, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant mother appeared as a model to a lithograph by Diana Thorne titled Spanish Mother, The Terror of 1938 (HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, p. 55) [Image 7]. It was published in 1939, when the Spanish Civil War was in its last months. Here, the migrant land worker mother, which would became the great US economical depression symbol, was also turned into a symbol of the Spanish mothers’ suffering. This mother is drawn with great fidelity to the photographic portrait. She appears alone, without her children, but with the same hand gesture and face expression that denotes a resigned preoccupation.
Both women in Chim’s and Lange’s photographs convey a sense of impotence. However, the Spanish mother was portrayed in a less passive behaviour than the North American: she is standing, not seated, she looks directly up, and does not have a distant glaze. Also the Spanish mother is nursing her child, while the American just holds her toddler son or daughter against her. At the same time, the photographer is a little more revealed in the Spanish image: two of the children look directly at him, as opposed to the American children, which hide their faces on their mother’s shoulders. While Lange’s photograph approximate this mother to all mankind’s sufferings and perseverance, as Stryker points out, the act of looking up is decisive in Chim’s image. It is this gesture that transforms the image in a symbol of the sufferings related to a specific kind of event, the modern war.
1 David Seymour was borne Dawid Szymin in Poland, in 1911. He left for Germany to study in Leipzig in 1929, and, in 1932, to Paris. There he started in photography professionally, employed by the Rap agency, and later by Alliace. He photographed largely the Popular Front in France and the Spanish Civil War. During the Second World War he got the American citizenship and anglicised his name. In 1947 he founded Magnum agency, along with Robert Capa, George Rodger, Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Vandivert. He died in 1956 in Egypt, photographing the war near Suez channel (NAGGAR In YOUNG, Cynthia (ed), 2013).
2 Weekly illustrated magazine, a branch of the French Comunist Party, the PCF. About the relation between Regards and Chim’s and Capa’s Spanish Civil War photographsm see ZERWES, 2013.
3 C. S. Perice (1839-1914), North-American philosopher and scientist. Dubois quotes the following passage of his Collected Papers: “An icon is a sign that refers to the object which it denotes simply in virtue of its characteristics, whether this object really exists or not” (Apud DUBOIS, 1990, p. 63).
4 According to Hariman and Lucaites, “In sum, iconic photographs acquire rhetorical potential by representing events according to the conventions of those visual arts and persuasive practices familiar to a public audience. The iconic image is a moment of visual eloquence, but it never is obtained through artistic experimentation. It is an aesthetic achievement made out of thoroughly conventional materials” (HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, p. 30).
5 Some exemples of authors and works that called this image an icon are, BRENNEN and HARDT, 1999, p. 15; GOLDBERG, 1991, pp. 135-142; HARIMAN and LUCAITES, 2007, pp. 53-57.
6 The importance of FSA in history of photography was stressed by Olivier Lugon: “Todas las historias de la fotografía, al referirse a los años treinta, hacen mención de una corriente documental, percibida y definida como tal en la época y presentada posteriormente como el elemento dominante de aquella década. Se desarrollaría sobre todo en Estados Unidos, en la segunda mitad de la década, y encontraría su encarnación ejemplar en el trabajo de la Farm Security Administration – la famosa FSA –, ingente campaña fotográfica emprendida bajo el Gobierno Roosevelt de 1935 a 1942, en torno a figuras como Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn o Arthur Rothstein. Su misión: dar a conocer mediante la imagen, tanto al Congresso como al grande público, los problemas de una población rural severamente afectada por la crisis” (LUGON, 2010, p. 15).
Erika Zerwes. PhD in History (2013) at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences of UNICAMP, Brazil – with a research internship at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France – with the thesis War Time: visual culture and political culture in Magnum founders’ war photographs, 1936-1947. Her main research areas are Photography, Photojournalism, Visual Culture, Political Culture and Avant-Garde Photography.