book review

The Power of the Image …Looking and Seeing

June 2, 2015
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“Migrant Mother” Dorothea Lange”s 1936 iconic photo is inspiration for Marisa Silver’s novel “Mary Coin”

I so love Marisa Silver’s new book, Mary Coin. She uses Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph, Migrant Mother as the fulcrum for her beautifully written story about photographer, subject, a moment in time and how history is made.

Inspired by real life women, Dorothea Lange and Florence Owen Thompson, it is a fictional exploration of the story behind the iconic photo. Silver’s compelling novel incorporates biographical details of her subjects about that brief encounter between two self-determined women; one celebrated and one unknown (Florence lived in anonymity and did not reveal who she was until nearing the end of her life).

Mary Coin is the migrant mother with courage and determination as well as secrets. Vera Dare is the photographer with creative ambitions who chooses to leave her children to pursue her work.  A third character in the book is Walker Dodge, a present-day profession of cultural history who discovers family secrets embedded in the photo. Silver tells a compassionate story about family, love, loss and uncertainty.

The story also explores questions about the power of photography, the morality of art and how history is interpreted and preserved. Vera Dare’s portrait brought the plight of the migrant workers and rural poverty to the attention of the Farm Security Bureau but she also knew that it might not help Mary and her children. In the framing of the photograph, Mary’s glance is full of strength and resignation. She is rooted in time. But why are the children turned from the camera?  Questions of intimacy and distance are threads throughout the book.

One of the most famous images of the 20th Century, the photo has become dull with time. It has been exhibited, used to document the Depression and even placed on a stamp. We have interpreted the image throughout the decades and no longer see it.

Marisa Silver weaves a beautiful story that gives new life to this iconic photograph and shows how photography can capture the essence of a moment but the question remains; does it blur or illuminate history?

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