Her photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.
“I had to get my camera to register things that were more important than how poor they were – their pride, their strength, their spirit.” – Dorothea Lange
“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I’ve only touched it, just touched it.”
– Dorothea Lange
“You force yourself onto strange streets, among strangers. It may be very hot. It may be painfully cold. It may be sandy and windy and you say, ‘what am I doing here? What drives me to do this hard thing?’”
Wherever there was social upheaval, or quiet suffering, Lange was there with a compassionate eye to record and report.
Dorothea Lange was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist,
She is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Lange's photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.
Born of second generation German immigrants on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey,
Dorothea Lange was named Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn at birth.
She dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's maiden name after her father abandoned the family when she was 12 years old, one of two traumatic incidents in her early life.
The other was her contraction of polio at age seven which left her with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp.
"It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," Lange once said of her altered gait. "I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."
Lange was educated in photography in New York City, in a class taught by Clarence H. White.
She was informally apprenticed to several New York photography studios, including that of the famed Arnold Genthe.
In 1918, she moved to San Francisco, and by the following year she had opened a successful portrait studio.
She lived across the bay in Berkeley for the rest of her life. In 1920, she married the noted western painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two sons.
One, born in 1925, was named Daniel Rhoades Dixon. The second child, born in 1929, was named John Eaglesfeather Dixon.
Her studies of unemployed and homeless people captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
In December 1935, she divorced Dixon and married agricultural economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Taylor educated Lange in social and political matters, and together they documented rural poverty and the exploitation of sharecroppers and migrant laborers for the next five years — Taylor interviewing and gathering economic data, Lange taking photos.
From 1935 to 1939, Lange's work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten — particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers — to public attention.
Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era.
The image of a worn, weather-beaten woman, a look of desperation on her face, two children leaning on her shoulders, an infant in her lap; has become a photographic icon of the Great Depression in America.
The photo was taken in March 1936 at a camp for seasonal agricultural workers 175 miles north of Los Angeles by Dorothea Lange.
Lange was working for the Farm Security Administration as part of a team of photographers documenting the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions.
The photograph that has become known as "Migrant Mother" is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California.
Her husband was from California.
Lange was concluding a month's trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration.
As Lange was finishing the photographic assignment and was driving back home in a wind-driven rain when she came upon a sign for the camp.
Something beckoned her to postpone her journey home and enter the camp.
She was immediately drawn to the woman and took a series of six shots - the only photos she took that day. The woman was the mother of seven children and on the brink of starvation.
In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:
"It was raining, the camera bags were packed, and I had on the seat beside me in the car the results of my long trip, the box containing all those rolls and packs of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington. It was a time of relief.
Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night, and my eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead. I felt freed, for I could lift my mind off my job and think of home.
I was on my way and barely saw a crude sign with pointing arrow which flashed by at the side of the road, saying PEA-PICKERS CAMP.
But out of the corner of my eye I did see it I didn't want to stop, and didn't.
I didn't want to remember that I had seen it, so I drove on and ignored the summons. Then, accompanied by the rhythmic hum of the windshield wipers, arose an inner argument:
Dorothea, how about that camp back there? What is the situation back there?
Are you going back?
Nobody could ask this of you, now could they?
To turn back certainly is not necessary.
Haven't you plenty of negatives already on this subject?
Isn't this just one more of the same?
Besides, if you take a camera out in this rain, you're just asking for trouble. Now be reasonable, etc. etc., etc.
Making a U-Turn…
Having well convinced myself for 20 miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite.
Almost without realizing what I was doing I made a U-turn on the empty highway.
I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign, PEA-PICKERS CAMP.
I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.
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 that 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.”
In the space of ten minutes Lange photographed the squalid scene, moving closer to her subject with each exposure.
The last was the close-up view of the woman with three children that we now know as Migrant Mother.
With that photograph, Lange achieved what she had set out to do for the Resettlement Association: “to register the things about those people that were more important than how poor they were,” she explained, “—their pride, their strength, their spirit.”
The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody.
But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment."
Lange, Dorothea, "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,"
Popular Photography (February 1960);
Migrant Mother does not take in a single detail of the pea pickers’ camp—the bleak landscape and muddy ground, the tattered tents and dilapidated pickup trucks.
Still, the photograph evokes the uncertainty and despair resulting from continual poverty. The mother’s furrowed brow and deeply lined face make her look much older than she is (thirty-two).
Her right hand touches the down-turned corner of her mouth in an unconscious gesture of anxiety.
Her sleeve is tattered and her dress untidy;
Another of Lange’s photographs shows the mother nursing the baby who now lies sleeping in her lap.
Evidently she has done all she can for her family and has nothing left to offer.
The older children press against her body in a mute appeal for comfort, but she seems as oblivious to them as she does to Lange’s camera.
Lange herself knew only the outline of the woman’s circumstances;
Lange never even learned her name, or that she was a full-blooded American Indian raised in Oklahoma, in the Indian Territory of the Cherokee Nation.
The images were made using a Graflex camera. The original negatives are 4x5" film.
It is not possible to determine on the basis of the negative numbers (which were assigned later at the Resettlement Administration) the order in which the photographs were taken.
The original photo featured Florence's thumb and index finger on the tent pole, but the image was later retouched to hide Florence's thumb. Her index finger was left untouched (lower right in photo).
According to Thompson's son, Lange got some details of this story wrong, but the impact of the picture was based on the image showing the strength and need of migrant workers.
The morning after Lange visited the camp, she printed the photographs and took them to the San Francisco News.
They were published as illustrations to an article recounting the plight of the destitute pea pickers, and the story was repeated in newspapers throughout the nation.
food on American tables could not feed themselves.
Spurred to action by pictures that revealed not the economic causes, but the human consequences of poverty, the federal government promptly sent twenty thousand pounds of food to California migrant workers.
The photos' wider impact included influencing John Steinbeck in the writing of his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
So this is the rest of the story…
According to Mrs. Thompson’s son
In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Thompson and her family were traveling on US Highway 101 towards Watsonville in hopes of finding more work.
On the road, the car timing chain snapped and they coasted to a stop just inside a pea-picker's camp on Nipomo Mesa.
While Jim Hill, her husband, and two of Thompson's sons took the radiator, which had also been damaged, to town for repair, Thompson and some of the children set up a temporary camp.
As Thompson waited, Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family.
Over 10 minutes she took 6 images.
Thompson claimed that Lange never asked her any questions and got many of the details incorrect. Troy Owens recounted:
"There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have."
Thompson also claimed that Lange promised the photos would never be published, but Lange sent them to the San Francisco News as well as to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C.
The News ran the pictures almost immediately, with an assertion that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California.
Within days, the pea-picker camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government.
However, Thompson and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived and were working near Watsonville, California.
While Thompson's identity was not known for over forty years after the photos were taken, the images became famous. The sixth image especially, which later became known as Migrant Mother, "has achieved near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in [United States] history."
Roy Stryker called Migrant Mother the "ultimate" photo of the Depression Era. "[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture … The others were marvelous, but that was special ... . She is immortal."
As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration "have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography.“
Edward Steichen described them as "the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures."
It was only in the late 1970s that Thompson's identity was discovered.
In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and recognized her from the 40-year-old photograph.
A letter Thompson wrote was published in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press sent a story around entitled "Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.“
Florence was quoted as saying "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did.“
Thompson's daughter Katherine (to the left of the frame) said in a December 2008 interview that the photo's fame made the family feel shame at their poverty.
For all its power and effectiveness as a documentary photograph, Migrant Mother endures as a work of art.
With the mother at the center of a classically triangular composition and two small heads on either side, the image bears the iconic emotional and symbolic character of a classical monument or a Renaissance Madonna.
Yet Lange herself could never understand its particular appeal.
When she once complained about the continual use of this photograph to the neglect of her others, she was reminded by a friend that “time is the greatest of editors, and the most reliable.”
Other Works by Lange
First-graders, some of Japanese ancestry, at the Weill public school, San Francisco, Calif., pledging allegiance to the United States flag.
The evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War relocation authority centers for the duration of the war
San Francisco, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war
What do you first notice when you look at this picture?
What do you notice about their clothing?
Essay Question 1
In the final photo of the day, Lange focuses on the mother and her children.
What does she not show?
Essay Question 2
Why would the Resettlement Administration want these photographs rather than just words or statistics ?
Essay Question 3
When this photograph was published in newspapers, how did Americans respond to it? (What were their emotions and subsequent actions ?)