Dorothea Lange – “Migrant Mother”

The power of great photography is alive and very well. Taken in an era when 35 mm film became a popular format and without the luxury of multiple digital “bursts” to chose exactly the right shot, the clear and enviable skill of manual photographers is undeniable.

This is the first of a selection of those iconic photographs that resonate with succeeding generations, such that their relevance today is unquestionable.

The first in our series is “Migrant Mother” by the Great Depression-era photographer, Dorothea Lange.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken (New Jersey, US) into a family of German immigrants, Ms Lange, succumbed to polio aged 7 – that left her with a limp and recurring pain – and at 12, she and her family were abandoned by her father. The influence on the young Dorothea of these harrowing events indisputably led her in her work as a social commentator and photojournalist.

Graduating from Columbia University, in 1918 she determined to travel the world but her plans were foreshortened as a result of crime en route to San Francisco where she settled, married and raised two boys.

The years of the Great Depression, provided Ms Lange with ample opportunity to study the lives of those left destitute. Her work became of interest to the federal Resettlement Administration who employed her to document the lives of migrant workers suffering rural poverty.

In 1936, Dorothea took the photograph, “Migrant Mother” in Nipomo, (California) – at a settlement camp for out of work pea pickers, the crop having been destroyed by freezing rain. Her stark image truly captured the essence of a mother’s struggle to provide for her children in the present and portrayed the loss of her hope for her children’s future.

She made her images available at no cost to the press across America in order to raise awareness of the plight of these displaced families. A San Francisco newspaper carried the story and the photos, as a direct result the Federal Government provided emergency aid for the camp.

The woman photographed was Florence Owens Thompson, then aged 32. She later admitted that she had managed to keep her family alive but they “just existed”, she had sold car tyres and they had eaten frozen crops. Dorothea had promised Ms Thompson, a Cherokee Indian, originally from Oklahoma, anonymity as she felt the photos may assist the plight of her six children and of the poor itinerant labours who roamed the country seeking work. Above all she wanted to avoid any embarrassment to her children as she didn’t want them to be seen as specimens of poverty.

Ms Thomson resolutely remained anonymous until the late 1970’s but she gained nothing material from her role in this iconic work. In 1983, after suffering a stroke and being unable to afford her medical care, her children used her identity as the “Migrant Mother” to raise donations. She died shortly afterwards.

On May 28, 2008, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Ms Lange’s induction into the California Hall of Fame.



Image Credit: “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange 1936 © Library of Congress / Courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery