Academic journal article Afterimage

Meaning, Memory and Misogyny: LIFE Photographer Hansel Mieth's Monkey Portrait

Academic journal article Afterimage

Meaning, Memory and Misogyny: LIFE Photographer Hansel Mieth's Monkey Portrait

Article excerpt

German emigre photographer Hansel Mieth (1909-98) vividly documented pivotal cultural events of twentieth-century America. As an amateur photographer during the Great Depression, she recorded her life working alongside itinerant farm workers and radical labor activists in California. With the Works Progress Administration (WPA), she photographed immigrant communities in San Francisco, California. As a staff photographer for LIFE magazine, she traveled the nation creating memorable photographic essays on a diverse range of subjects, including cowboys, unwed mothers, women in the garment workers union and the Dionne quintuplets. Mieth also shot portraits of famous people such as Albert Einstein and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But perhaps her most enduring photographic legacy consists of images of ordinary people who symbolize important social transformations. These photographs include her own versions of two iconic topics of World War II images: "Rosie the Riveter" and Japanese internment camps.


In 1941 Popular Photography magazine described Mieth as "one of America's top-notch woman photographers." (1) At the height of her career from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, her work straddled two distinct and often contradictory worlds: socially conscious photography and commercial photojournalism. By the 1950s, as art historian Lili Corbus Bezner has noted, the boundaries between these categories had blurred. Documentary photography "increasingly became categorized as professional photojournalism as its ideological presumptions and hegemonic hold were questioned." (2) The aesthetics and the emotional engagement of documentary photography were absorbed into commercial photojournalism, where they were often used to communicate conservative ideologies.

Mieth's career at LIFE coincided with this transitional period in American photography. A close reading of Mieth's published photographs--along with unpublished sources such as personal manuscripts and interviews--demonstrates the process by which LIFE appropriated leftist social reform photography. The term "cultural appropriation" is defined as "the taking--from a culture that is not one's own--of intellectual property, cultural expression or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge." (3) Mieth's politics and artistic philosophy were rooted in a working-class, immigrant background. She identified with the poor and she strongly supported labor unions and racial and gender equality. LIFE's staff in general consisted of white, upper-class American-born males who embraced pro-business, anti-labor, misogynistic and racist ideologies. In the process of appropriating Mieth's photographs, LIFE often had to alter their meaning to suit the magazine's hegemonic worldview. This was accomplished through a variety of means, including the careful selection, arrangement, editing and rewriting of photographs and the narratives that framed them.

By the late 1940s, Mieth's position as a social reform photographer within the world of commercial photojournalism had become untenable. She found herself increasingly marginalized at LIFE, finally quitting photojournalism and moving from New York City to California. As Bezner states, "This parallel between the decline of documentary photography and the rise of political repression is no mere coincidence--a redbaiting, blacklisting climate forced many artists to retreat into safer, more private realms." (4) Mieth has faded into obscurity, while her contemporaries such as Margaret Bourke-White and W. Eugene Smith are widely celebrated. As a victim of Cold War blacklisting, Mieth lost more than photographic assignments--she also lost a place in public memory.

During her career at LIFE, Mieth produced hundreds of photographs and dozens of photographic essays. This article focuses on her most famous single photograph: a portrait of a monkey. This image has taken on a life of its own, beyond the intentions of the photographer or the editors of LIFE. …

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