"Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one -- and can
help build a nascent one." (
, page 17)
"The quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in
response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the
massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images." (
, page 19)
Photographer J.B. Starkweather
Gum Shan [Gold Mountain] Meets El Dorado
Quarter plate daguerreotype, (photographed c. 1852). California State Library, California History Section, Pictorial Resources, No. 912
Photographer Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882)
Comstock Lode Mine Works, Virginia City, Nevada
Mouth of Curtis Shaft, Savage Mine
) (Photographed January-February 1868) Albumen print, from the Clarence King Survey of the 40th Parallel (George Eastman House, Still Photograph Archive, No. 81:1887:0011)
Photographer W. Eugene Smith
Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath
Starkweather's photograph of American and Chinese miners is noteworthy in its use of strategies to divide the scene. The mining trough seen in the center of the image separates three miners of European descent from four miners of Eastern origin. The rail fence separates the background's farm environment of house and barn from the mining activity of the foreground. Movement is from back to front, as seen in the flow of water, the deeper upturning of the earth in the foreground, and the symbolic and literal rejection of the farm life in favor of seeking one's fortune in the quest for precious metals by placer mining. All of the miners, both Caucasian and Asian, wear a look of determination and hopefulness. All will probably meet with ultimate disappointment, failure, and destroyed health, but who knows, maybe not. They are living, in their respective ways, the nineteenth century American dream. There's a huge expanse of land out there, awaiting the eager and the industrious who might extract great wealth from the land. What appears to us today as a low technology effort was in fact a high technology endeavor that paid great dividends to those who persevered.
O'Sullivan's Comstock Lode Mine Works is a study in verticality and in shades of black and white. Six miners are seen at the "mouth" of the mine, three waiting in line at the left and in profile, one facing forward in the center of the image, and two that are also in frontal view to the right. Each miner is dressed in heavy protective wear -- coats, leggings, boots, and a felt hat. Each is frozen in pose, undoubtedly a reflection of the need for long photographic exposure time. The central figure is seen to emerge from behind his mining cart, head and shoulders in view. His position is suggestive both of birth and death, a mechanically assisted birth from the bowels of the Earth and delivery to a baby carriage, and death as the rigid body is consigned to its coffin. He clearly is the center of attention. At least one of the figures to the right is grasping his cart, his manual connection to Mother Earth. All six figures (the central miner, in particular) are illuminated from behind by a brilliant light (flash photography?), reflective of the intense shiny brilliance of the precious metal they are here to recover. The strong verticality of the photographic image is seen in the human figures, the cart frames, the mining bays, and the associated fabrications of the mine entrance. All are frozen in time as they prepare for continuation of their labors. It is through their efforts that civilization is brought to the barren West and a century-old nation is brought to greater maturity.
The famous image of a mother and her stricken child in a Japanese hot tub, one of a series of photographs of the victims of Minamata Disease taken by W. Eugene Smith in 1972, is a photographic
of the environmental movement.
Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath
shows mother and child engaged in the daily Japanese ritual of the hot bath in late afternoon or early evening. The mother, Ryoko Uemura, supports her helpless daughter Tomoko in the tub, and she directs a loving gaze at Tomoko that is intensely emotional, gentle, and filled with devotion. Tomoko's malformed limbs and torso, her locked musculature, and her fixed stare upward add poignancy to the photographic image that stays with the viewer.
The Uemura family lived and worked in one of a number of small fishing villages along Minamata Bay, on the west coast of the main Japanese island of Kyushu, to the south and west of Honshu, the largest island in the Japanese archipelago. This region of Japan has industrial plants in addition to its extensive and valuable fishing industry. In the early 1950s, a subsidiary of the Chisso Corporation produced organic chemicals including acetaldehyde and PVC plastics, and for many months it discharged its mercury-contaminated industrial waste products into Minamata Bay. In a classic example of bioaccumulation of chemical contaminants, the marine trophic food chain experienced a many thousand-fold concentration of mercury compounds, and the Minamata fishery harvested the mercury-laced top predatory fishes for its local markets. The residents of Minamata Bay began exhibiting symptoms of extreme heavy metal poisoning. Approximately three thousand people were diagnosed with Minamata disease in the ensuing months and years, nearly 3000 died as a consequence of the mercury poisoning, and perhaps two million ate the tainted fish. In many instances, including that of the Uemura family, the mercury poisoning took place
. The story of Minamata is a long and complicated one for post-World War II Japan, but it raised tremendous international attention and led to a deep awareness of the dangers posed by exposure to heavy metals such as mercury produced in industrial activities.