Clark Humanities Museum

The goal of the Clark Humanities Museum, which opened in 1970, is to give students the crucial opportunity to engage directly with original works of art and other artifacts of material culture related to their courses—an irreproducible experience that sharpens critical inquiry, fosters interdisciplinary thinking, and offers the keen poignancy of authenticity in our increasingly virtual digital age.

Subjects/Objects: A Critical Look at Photographic Truth

October 18th – November 23rd, 2021

The Clark Humanities Museum at Scripps College is pleased to present a photographic exhibition curated by the students in Professor Gonzales-Day’s Core III: The Mechanical Eye, Photography and Truth,” taught in the Fall 2020 and to be mounted in the Clark in mid-October.

Take the virtual tour at:

(Text written collectively by the students)


Gillian Bell, Chloe Boxer, Molly Bradshaw, Madeleine Callan, Margo Collazo, Katie Eu, Anna Horne, Tsion Mamo, Vivian Monteiro, Emma Sar, Aanya Subramaniam


The exhibition Subjects/Objects: A Critical Look at Photographic Truth provides viewers with an opportunity to engage critically with notions of photographic truth. Photography represents a truth through a disembodied eye–a perspective unique to the mechanical nature of the camera’s lens. A photographer uses this mechanical eye to capture an image on film, in gelatin and platinum prints, or today, with a digital sensor and inkjet prints. While the physical form of the photographic image has changed throughout time, since its invention in 1826, the actual process of creation is essentially the same; point, click, and shoot. This history provides an opportunity to identify and evaluate photographic themes across time and space and allows the mechanical eye to become a subject of exploration in and of itself. In this course and in the exhibition, we explore how the mechanical eye relates to notions of photographic truth, what photographic truth means, or has meant, and how the mechanical eye affects the identities of those photographed, the photographer, the viewer, and the circulation of photographs.

Photographic Truth

Truth, when related to photography, tends to be seen as objective, depicting what the photographer wants to show. Oftentimes, this results in only portraying one portion of the truth, or a truth based on the photographer’s perspective. However, the subjectivity of truth claims can be seen in the photographer’s choices. These choices are reflected in the angle in which the image was shot, how they edited the photo, and what information was given in both the photo and in the label. In many photographs of people, the truth of the subjects mixes with the truth of the photographer behind the lens. Multiple truths can exist at the same time. By examining the numerous perspectives represented by the photographer, the subject, and the viewer, new truths begin to emerge. Each perspective has its own biases, some are hidden and others are clearly discernible but no matter what truth is revealed, the subject of the image will always have their own truth.

Photographic Objectification

Objectification in photography is portraying a subject without agency. Photographs are as much a reflection of the photographer as the subject. In other words, the subject becomes the object and the photographer becomes the subject. The photo is for the benefit of the audience, giving it the potential to tell a half-truth or an untruth. In this course and exhibit, we questioned who has the power in the subject-photographer-viewer dynamic. What does the camera see and how is that manipulated by the photographer? What level of interpretation is left for the viewer? How much agency does the subject have in the photo? Do they control the narrative? We explore the point at which the subject is empowered or objectified. Some of these methods of analysis include; the position of the subject within the frame, where the image was published, whether or not the subject is looking into the lens, and the narrative implied by the photographer. There is a fine line between subjects and objects.

Many of us were inspired by the image “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange which depicts a mother with her children during the Great Depression. It was widely distributed to illustrate the poverty of the Great Depression and became a generalization of the experiences of the poor. Later, it was revealed that the mother, Florence Thompson was part Native American. This meant the image no longer represented the poverty of white Americans that it had sought to represent. Rather, it was a look into the poverty of a woman of color, that Lange had not intended to show, as she did not fully investigate the role of race in the Depression. The whitewashing and wide-spread viewing of this image degraded the woman to an object of poverty rather than a Native American mother caring for her children and her unique story.

Exhibition wall text written collectively by the students in Core III: The Mechanical Eye.

The Artists:

  • Berenice Abbott aspired to produce strong formalist photographs. Through her clear documentation of 1930s New York and its changing landscape, she was able to capture the subjects objectively without bias.
  • Gordon C. Abbott took photographs of everyday people and nature scenes in Mexico and Guatemala in the first half of the 1900s. His work transforms the ordinary into scenes of tranquility, intrigue, dignity and nobility. His silver gelatin prints have aged with grace and usually have a tint to them. Little is known about his personal life and his lack of public identity allows the photos to stand mostly alone, unlike the works of other more famous photographers like Dorothea Lange or Kevin Carter.
  • Ansel Adams’ photograph documents children in the aftermath of the Great Depression and illustrates that during tumultuous times, hope remains for the future in the children that have fought to survive to see a better day.
  • Eve Arnold is most notable for her photographic work of Marilyn Monroe in the decade before her passing. Arnold’s photographs allow viewers to see Monroe in a more relaxed setting, which contrasts how mainstream media portrayed her.
  • Anne Brigman’s photographic specialty was female nudes in rural environments. She, her sister, and her friends were often the subjects of her photos. She is known for her bohemian lifestyle.
  • Walter Chappell photographs the relationship between nature and the human body. However, in turn, transforms women, human beings, into inanimate objects amongst the living nature that surrounds them.
  • Larry Colwell captures the attention of the viewer to know more about the figure and invites them to create their own story behind it.
  • Eileen Cowin’s photography highlights the experiences of women and their roles in the traditional American family. While photographs of women so often sexualize the subject, Cowin as a woman photographer uses her own body and that of her twin sister to emphasize the female experience rather than appearance.
  • Tony Gleaton’s subjects are carefully positioned to give the image his desired lighting. His photographs seem like moments captured in everyday life, but are manipulated through framing to obtain the perfect image.
  • Ken Heyman traveled to over sixty countries photographing people in an attempt to interpret the human condition. He did not build relationships with his subjects in order to portray them in an unbiased fashion; resulting in a portrayal of only a portion, or one version of the truth.
  • Henry Horenstein causes the viewer to think of the worst case scenario since nothing about the context of the image implies that the subject is bungee jumping.
  • Graciela Iterbide photographed many different Indigenous Mexican communities, which have historically been objectified through photography. However, Iterbide received permission from her subjects and built a rapport with them, often taking photographs of the time they spent together, as is the case of Mujer Angel. Does Iterbide objectify this Seri woman, or create a new meaning entirely?
  • Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” composed the photo in a way that came to symbolize a white American understanding of poverty, documenting part, but not the whole story.
  • Clarence Helen Levitt’s work captures timeless moments on the bustling New York streets. Levitt’s lack of relationship with her subjects calls into question the role of candid street photography and photographic truth.
  • Jacques Lowe is one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century because of his work documenting the lives of celebrities. He expertly shows the humanity of icons and ordinary people alike.
  • Danny Lyon’s photographs took on the New Journalism style and focused on subjects often overlooked by mainstream society.
  • Margrethe Mather began as a pictorialist photographer but later pursued more abstract work with an emphasis on design and lines. She is known for her work with Edward Weston.
  • Bill Owens focused on the residents of Northern California Suburbia, often attending local meetings to photograph people there.
  • Marion Post Walcott took photographs for the Farm Security Administration and while employed there, she captured images of poverty that still managed to highlight the individuality of her subjects and the realities of their situations.
  • Edward Weston’s photographs of nudes do not seem to celebrate or empower his subjects, instead they document and explore, benefiting the viewer not the subject. His series of peppers embrace objectification and the pleasures of the mechanical eye.

Ansel Adams, American (1902-1984)

Trailer Camp Children, Richmond, California, 1944
Silver gelatin print on paper
13 5/8 x 9 5/8 in. (34.61 x 24.45 cm) (image)
Accession Number: 2013.5.18
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery

Berenice Abbott, American (1898-1991)

Murray Hill Hotel: Spiral, 1935
Gelatin silver print on paper
19 1/2 in. x 15 1/4 in. (49.53 cm x 38.74 cm)
Accession Number: 2012.2.1
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery

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Please note that the Clark Humanities Museum is open to all Claremont College students, faculty, and staff, by appointment only.

Unfortunately, we are unable to admit any other outside persons at this time, due to COVID restrictions. 

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