Many artists tried to attract public attention to the important social problems and concerns through their works. Photography has become a powerful tool of self-expression and depiction of the social life and destinies of separate individuals. The analysis of photos by Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Dorothea Lange proves their resemblance to the classical paintings of Madonna and a child. However, the photos also present a drastic difference in the perception of traditional Madonna and the contemporary ones. Particularly, they reveal the topics of misery, poverty, poor living conditions, and the fate of immigrants. Nevertheless, all three artists show that even the biggest social problems and tragedies do not reduce the power and beauty of motherhood nor weaken the strong bonds between mothers and children.
Jacob Riis’s, Italian Ragpicker describes the scene from the everyday life of immigrants. It is a touching picture of a mother and a child, living in great misery and poverty. The artist aimed to represent the routine days of the immigrant families, pointing out the miserable living conditions and struggles they have to tackle every day in order to survive. The misery of the photography is enhanced through the interior of the basement, with high cold walls and numerous industrial items. The position of the mother tells about her fatigue, desperation, and tiresome, which inevitably accompany all immigrant families in the new places. Conversely, the child is portrayed as the innocent victim of the circumstances, whose destiny resembles the grayness of the basement walls.
The viewers can easily detect the similarity between this photograph and paintings of Madonna and a child. The woman on this photo sits in the same position and holds the child in an alike manner. Besides, the hat above her resembles the halo which is the symbol of innocence, purity, and holiness. Apparently, the author intended to capture the moment of the enormous bounds, love between the mother and a child and emphasize the importance of this connection, despite the surroundings. However, the viewers can notice the irony in this photograph observing the unfair conditions created for the immigrants. Jacob Riis uses the techniques of flash and negative in order to emphasize the gum atmosphere and create a mood of desperation and fatigue.
The similar ideas can be traced in Lewis Hine’s photograph Madonna of the Tenement. The very name of this photo evokes associations with the classical painting of the holy Madonna and a child. The posture of a woman and children in this photography also resembles the traditional paintings. However, it is possible to observe drastic differences in the context, background, and atmosphere of classical portraits of Madonna and this photo by Lewis Hine. While classical paintings focus on the glory, holiness, and purity of the image, this photograph precisely describes the difficulties and misery of the life the contemporary women encounter. The posture, vision, and facial expression of the woman reflect her deep concerns and worries about the future. Simultaneously, the children still represent the same innocence and carelessness typical for the classical paintings.
The viewers can easily understand the link between Lewis Hine’s work and classical paintings. Furthermore, this photograph pays much attention to the topic of motherhood and love between mothers and children. Moreover, it is also full of tender relationships and strong bonds within family members. Though modern Madonna lives in the tenements, it does not decrease her devotion to the children and desire to protect them from any obstacles and problems. The artist uses the technique of byline and negative which assists in capturing the specific moments and creating the atmosphere of expressiveness and reality. Moreover, the avoidance of bright colors and shadows helps to emphasize the background and make a strong opposition to the traditional paintings of mothers and their children.
The photography by Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA also contributes to the topic of family relations and mother’s love. It depicts a young female immigrant with two children hiding their faces in her clothes. What impresses most is the sight of a young woman. She looks dreamy, worried, concerned, anxious, oppressed, sorrowful, and weak. Despite her young age, she looks rather exhausted. Nevertheless, even under such conditions, she takes care of her children and wants to guarantee a better life for them in the future. Apparently, this photograph bears common features with the portraying of Madonna and a child, though, in a very different context and situation.
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Through this photograph, the viewers can understand the sorrow and difficulties of the immigrant life. The eyes of the woman depict all the pain and remorse which irrevocably “accompany” the immigrants on their ways to new places. The appearance, clothes, and gestures of the woman tell about great misery and poverty. However, even in such a situation, she looks attractive and beautiful due to her enormous mother’s love and devotion to the children. Alike other photographs of this series, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA is done in the negative technique and dull colors. The artist applies to the portrait technique in order to emphasize the human and social tragedy imposed in immigration as the phenomenon.
In conclusion, the photography of the end of the 19th and 20th centuries has strongly contributed to the depiction of urgent social problems and needs. Thereby, special attention should be paid to the issues of poverty and immigration as harmful social phenomena. The artists have presented original views on this problem and tried to depict them through the paradigm of eternal human relations, especially within the family. All three photographs describe the modern women in a manner of Madonna carrying the children on her hands. Evidently, the contemporary characters are as passionate, beautiful, and devoted as the classical one. However, the context and situation of their survival have significantly changed pointing out the necessity to improve the social system.