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The Writer's Life

Marisa Silver's 'Mary Coin' imagines 'Migrant Mother's' life

Dorothea Lange's defining photograph of the Great Depression has inspired the author's fifth work of fiction.

March 07, 2013|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

For her final shot Lange pulled much closer and asked the children at Thompson's side to turn — "Migrant Mother" was the result. Lange's genius was to see and capture Thompson's essential dignity even at her lowest moment. Silver is equally generous and insightful with the photographer and subject.

Silver's experience in filmmaking helped her create the fictional photographer Dare. Her mother, Joan Micklin Silver, was part of a pioneering generation of female directors. And Silver herself has worked on documentaries and feature films.

It's wrong to think that a camera can capture an "objective" truth, Silver said. Even the simple framing of an image is an act of interpretation. "You can't take a photograph at face value," Silver said. "You have to understand what happens around a photograph to understand what it really means."

"Migrant Mother" captures a fraction of a second. "Mary Coin" unfolds over decades. Silver adds a mystery that takes the story to the Central Valley and eventually to the last days of the famous photographer and her equally famous subject.

"I wanted to see them at the end, because I wanted to know what their final reckoning was with this photograph that had defined their lives in such a huge way," Silver said.

In "Mary Coin," Silver takes a picture and spawns the proverbial thousand words many times over. The result is a stirring human portrait of two women and the times they lived in.

Silver will appear at ALOUD in conversation with poet and memoirist Meghan O'Rourke at 7:15 p.m. March 19 at the Los Angeles Public Library. More info:

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