Sometimes a photograph can stop you in your tracks – you’re almost spellbound and its power deeply moves you. That’s how I felt the very first time I saw ‘Migrant Mother’ by Dorothea Lange. I hadn’t seen this photograph until well into adulthood, so perhaps its impact and meaning were amplified with more mature eyes and life perspective.
Impoverished, destitute and homeless, I could only imagine what suffering this family was experiencing. The look on the mother’s face embodied so many emotions; deep concern and worry, apprehension about the future, a wistful longing. Despair. Yet there was something more, a glimmer of hope and determination, a quiet dignity and stoic resilience, a heroic fortitude of the human spirit.
I knew the photograph was taken in America during the Great Depression, but I was determined to learn more and began to look into the background and context of this compelling image.
The author, Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) was a professional photographer contracted by the US Government’s Farm Security Administration to drive around California, documenting and raising awareness of the struggles of rural life and impoverished farmers. In early 1936, Lange came across the pea fields of Nipomo. The pea crop had failed and migrant labour camps were full of unemployed field workers whose livelihoods were destroyed.
Lange recounts: “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. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in the lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”
Lange, Dorothea, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother” Popular Photography, February 1960
The now famous mother in the photograph was Florence Owens Thompson (1903 – 1983). Interestingly, Thompson’s identity was not revealed until many years after their encounter.
Although ‘Migrant Mother’ became the most well known and widely publicised image from this series, the other shots also convey the stark, desperate and unforgiving conditions in which Thompson and her family were forced to eke out a meagre existence.
In her biography of Lange, Linda Gordon describes Lange’s process: “Lange asked the mother and children to move into several different positions. She began with a mid-distance shot. Then she backed up for one shot, then came closer for others. She moved aside a pile of dirty clothes (she would never embarrass her subjects). She then moved closer yet, focusing on three younger children and sidelining the teenage daughter out of the later pictures altogether.”
Linda Gordon, ‘Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits’, 2009, pub. W. W. Norton & Company
Upon finishing her assignment, Lange approached the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. After presenting two of her images, one of which was ‘Migrant Mother’, the paper published an article featuring Lange’s photographs and the editor alerted federal authorities. As a result, the government dispensed 20,000 pounds of food to the families in desperate need.
This iconic image immediately became a symbol of the plight and desperation of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. In fact, the then Director of the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker, supported and advanced the collection of more than 270,000 images which were commissioned from numerous photographers throughout the country. The intention behind their collection and publication was to draw attention to, and increase public awareness of the adversity and hardship endured by displaced farming families and migrant workers.
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Having explored the history and context of this photograph, my appreciation has only grown; not only for its power as an individual image, but its power as a force and instigator for social change. I can’t help but feel now is also a critical time in our history when we need more Dorothea Langes and ‘Migrant Mothers’ to shock, motivate and inspire us all.