The Photograph as Modern Mythology – Part I

The art and practice of story-telling has been one of mankind’s most prevailing practices. In an attempt to understand the world around us, to seek “an experience of being alive,” the human race has consistently invented stories. The many mythologies that have prevailed across time and geological boundaries are a testament to our need to tell stories in order to make sense of our world. But where we can look back at past cultures and find, essentially, the prevailing myths of specific peoples, in America, there does not seem to be a single, congruent story by which our society is unified. To quote Joseph Campbell, “life today is so complex, and it is changing so fast, that there is no time for anything to constellate itself before it’s thrown over again.” While the democratic nature of American society prevents us from marshalling around a single mythology, it does lend itself to many diverse mythologies around which groups of people can come together.

We move too fast, and we expect the world around us to keep pace. We want faster appliances, faster service, and stories that get to the point, quickly. Movies succeed in our culture precisely because they can tell an intricate story in a short amount of time, at least compared to reading a book or listening to some modern bard. But even movies can be too much of a time investment for some people. If the story moves too slowly, it is criticized negatively. And yet, the visual image remains a powerful devise for relating profound stories in the modern age. The photograph seems to be one of the best ways to communicate stories to modern audiences who value conciseness. They encapsulate worlds of meaning in a single image. Thus, photography is a major mode by which mythologies can be created for, and told to, the modern world.

Photography is an emblematic practice of the modern world. It is the direct result of modern advances in technology and it is one of the most modern artistic practices. Even in photography’s infancy, practitioners saw its potential to tell stories, as evidenced in this image (above) by Henry Peach Robinson from 1858. This pre-Photoshop, multi-image compilation shows just what kind of lengths even early photographers were willing to go to tell a good story. In this photograph, called Fading Away, Robinson is trying to tell the story of a dying young girl. Her father, we assume, is staring out the window as he contemplates his own daughter’s impending death.

Viewers that are confronted with this image will tell themselves a different story about what is happening. While each viewer’s personal tale is unified in the collective assumption that we are looking at a dying girl, each one will contribute whatever personal experiences they have had with death to this image. Like any good myth, the storyteller has some idea that they are trying to convey, but each person who receives this story will translate for themselves its meaning and application.

The individual application of a story is something that J.R.R. Tolkien valued greatly as well. In the foreword to the second edition of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien stated,

I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

This quotation beautifully sums up one of photography’s greatest virtues as well. For no matter how much a photographer desires that the viewer garner a specific meaning from his image(s), each viewer will inevitably bring his or her own experiences, opinions, and desires to bear on the image.

All these factors will contribute to what ideas are reflected back, and those may or may not resemble the ideas that the photographer had in mind. A great example of this potential is Dorothea Lange’s photograph titled Migrant Mother:


This photograph was taken while Lange was working for the Farm Securities Administration. She was part of a group hired to capture the effects of the Great Depression on people around the country. It is an icon of American photography, and its strength is precisely in its varied applicability.

While Lange’s sympathies were very much for the woman and her children, this image can be applied in many different ways. On one hand, it is a great image of propaganda against the politics that contributed to the Great Depression; on another, it is a beautiful testament to the resolute dignity of motherhood across all social stratifications. As a viewer, one is free to bring what one has, wants, or needs to the translation of this photograph’s meaning. The mythology of this image is largely universal, while remaining peculiarly modern. Universal because it can communicate to virtually anyone, anywhere; modern because it is a photograph, something that could not have been made 200 years prior; and at the same time, American, because it is part of our story.

In another section from his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about what distinguishes a shaman from a priest and the benefits one offers his people over the other. The shaman is “someone who has had an experience.” In this context, Campbell is referring to a type of mystical experience. He goes on to say that the individual who has had such an experience “knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” An individual who has had a mystical experience “has to project it in the best way he can with images…There is more reality in an image than in a word.” According to Campbell, modern artists are the shamans of today. They are people who have had profound experiences and attempt to communicate something about them to the rest of the culture, giving others a glimpse of their “mystical experience.” Campbell continues,

The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.

This is what makes photographs such powerful mediums of Myth for modern society: they can instantiate an entire story in the fraction of a second. An image is not bound by specific words. It is not necessarily dependent on literate or educated people. We look at a photograph, such as Migrant Mother, and the story that goes with it is related without a single word. The story of the Great Depression is mythologized by the instance of this very image. To the extent that she can be considered a modern artist, Dorothea Lange has acted as a “shaman” for us, taking her experience of being in that place, with that woman and her children, and relating it back to us the best way she knew how: with her art. It is then up to us as viewers to decide what we want, or need, to take away from it. We even have the option of deciding to ignore this photograph, of looking instead for a different mythological image that relates more to our own experience.

(to be continued)

Thanks for reading,

P.S.  I consider this version another draft of this piece. As such, feedback is always welcome! Love it, hate it, confused by it, let me know. Thoughts of your own? Please feel free to contribute!


2 comments on “The Photograph as Modern Mythology – Part I

  1. SoulWait says:

    Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

  2. robstroud says:

    Very provocative and interesting piece. Thanks!

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