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How Dorothea Lange Photographed, Migrant Mother, one of the most iconic photos in American history

Updated: Jan 30, 2022

Dorothea Lange took this photograph in 1936, while employed by the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program, formed during the Great Depression to raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers. In Nipomo, California, Lange came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a camp filled with field workers whose livelihoods were devastated by the failure of the pea crops. Recalling her encounter with Thompson years later, she said, “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.”One photograph from that shoot, now known as Migrant Mother, was widely circulated to magazines and newspapers and became a symbol of the plight of migrant farmworkers during the Great Depression.

As Lange described Thompson’s situation, “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.” However, Thompson later contested Lange’s account. When a reporter interviewed her in the 1970s, she insisted that she and Lange did not speak to each other, nor did she sell the tires of her car. Thompson said that Lange had either confused her for another farmer or embellished what she had understood of her situation in order to make a better story.

When we visualise the Great Depression, we think first of one woman: Native American migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson. Few of us know her name, though nearly all of us know her face. For that we have another woman to thank: the photographer Dorothea Lange who during the Depression was working for the United States federal government, specifically the Farm Security Administration, on “a project that would involve documenting poor rural workers in a propaganda effort to elicit political support for government aid.”

That’s how Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, puts it in a video essay on Lange’s famous 1936 photo of Thompson, Migrant Mother. (For best results, view the video below on a phone or tablet rather than on a standard computer screen.) Reaching the migrant workers’ camp in Nipomo, California where Thompson and her children were staying toward the end of another long day of photography, Lange at first passed it by.

Only about twenty miles later did she decide to turn the car around and see what material the 2,500 to 3,500 “pea pickers” there might offer. She stayed only ten minutes, but in that time captured what Puschak calls the photograph that “came to define the Depression in the American consciousness” — it even heads the Great Depression’s Wikipedia page — and “became the archetypal image of struggling families in any era.”

Over time, Migrant Mother has also become “one of the most iconic pictures in the history of photography.” But Lange didn’t get it right away: it was actually the sixth portrait she took of Thompson, each one more powerful (and more able to “evoke sympathy from voters that would translate into political support”) than the last. Puschak takes us through each of these, marking the changes in composition that led to the photograph we can all call to mind immediately. “A lesser photographer would have milked the children’s faces for their sympathetic potential,” for instance, but having them turn away “communicates that message of family” without “taking away from the central face, or the eyes, which seem at last to let down their guard as they search the distance and worry.”

These and other actively made choices (including the removal of Thompson’s distracting left thumb in the darkroom) mean that “there is very little spontaneous in this iconic image of so-called documentary photography,” but “whether that diminishes its power is up to you. For me, being able to actually see the steps of Lange’s craft enhances her work.” Whatever Lange’s process, the product defined an era, and upon publication convinced the government to send 20,000 pounds of food to Nipomo — though by that point Thompson herself, who ultimately succeeded in providing for her family and lived to the age of 80, had moved on.

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