Carl Mydans was an American photographer most known for his photojournalistic work, first focusing on rural American during the latter days of the Great Depression, and then his work in World War 2. Mydans photographed notable historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur while on assignment, but he also focused on ordinary subjects that were not famous. Mydans’ main emphasis as a photographer was on the humanity of his subjects; whether photographing Holocaust survivors, famed generals, or a crowd of people on a bus reading about John F. Kennedy’s death, each of his images tends to convey the humanity of his subjects through their various expressions. Mydans was essentially a photographer who sought to portray his subjects in regard to their humanity first and foremost, without necessarily drawing attention to their prestige or the extremity of the situation (Voss, 1994). This is most evident in how many of his photographs focus on the emotions of his subjects, expressed through body language. The result is that each of his subjects become identifiable to the viewer, in regard to what they were feeling at any given time.
Compositionally, Mydans often focused on presenting his subjects front and center, providing a somewhat intimate view. This close framing also allows the viewer to see more clearly the expression of the subject. The lens of choice for Mydans was a telephoto or 50mm lens, rather than the use of wide angles (Mora and Brannan, 2006). His photographs also often have strong elements of contrast, with dark blacks and vibrant whites. This element of contrast further emphasizes the subject at hand. For instance, in one of his more famous photos, a portrait of Winston Churchill sitting within a crowd while wearing a dark overcoat, the coat is a deep black while Churchill’s expression is contrasted between his dark coat and dark top hat. The result is that the viewer is instantly drawn toward the focal point, which in this case would be Churchill’s expression itself. As a candid, Churchill appears to be contemplative, while his slouch indicates that he is also exhausted. This paints a portrayal of Churchill that is easily recognizable in regard to its relatable human elements: the man is contemplative, and his outfit differs from others in the crowd around him, which sets him apart; however, at the same time, he has the appearance of a man who is exhausted after a long day’s work. This expression is immediately recognizable to the viewer, which makes Churchill relatable. Similarly, Mydans’ photograph of two holocaust survivors sitting while looking casually at the camera has a similar effect. The two men in the photo are looking almost casually toward the lens, and their expressions and posture appear to be relaxed, sitting as any two men might while sitting during a lunch break. However, the men’s extremely gaunt and skeletal figures reveal the suffering they have endured. This is not emphasized in the image, but the viewer can immediately understand the horror these men have experienced, although their expressions appear to be nonchalant and casual.
Mydans’ overall contributions to photography were to highlight the humanity of each of his subjects, even within figures that were larger than life, or those who had suffered. By viewing his images, the subjects become immediately relatable, even if the viewer had never experienced similar situations. This is because when we look at Mydans’ work, we see people that we easily could have known ourselves. We recognize Churchill’s exhaustion because we ourselves have been exhausted; we see John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy sharing a private moment, and we recognize that this is how other couples we know commonly act. His work therefore emphasizes the recognizable, which is what gives it its appeal.
- Mora, G., & Brannan, B. W. (2006). FSA: the American vision. Harry N. Abrams.
- Voss, F. (1994). Reporting the War: the journalistic coverage of World War II. Smithsonian Institute Press.