When Dorothea Lange made this portrait of Florence Thompson, in February or March 1936, neither one of them could have known that it would become one of the most recognized and reproduced photos in history. Universally known as "Migrant Mother," it's an icon of America during the Great Depression.
Lange's caption from another photo of Florence Thompson: "Nipomo, Calif. Mar. 1936. Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged 32, the father is a native Californian. Destitute in a pea pickers camp, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Most of the 2,500 people in this camp were destitute."
At the time that the two women encountered each other, on the side of US 101, just outside Nipomo, California, Lange was working as a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, one of the federal government's New Deal agencies. Within the photographic community, she was becoming a big name; outside of it, few had heard of her. By the time she died, in 1965, she left behind a body of work that's unsurpassed in its power and beauty. She was famous, and deservedly so.
Thompson was a migrant farm worker. She and her husband followed the crops, trying desperately to keep body and soul together. She was also a Native American, born on a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. (This was something that Lange and people who saw the photo in the 1930s never knew. America assumed that she was white.) She never became wealthy. In fact, when she was dying of cancer, in the early 1980s, her family struggled to pay her medical bills. Understandably, she was sometimes angry that her face--though not her name or her story--had become famous, without her permission and without any benefit to her and her family. You can hear her tell her side of the story, here.
Reading Linda Gordon's terrific new biography of Lange--Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits--sent me back to "Migrant Mother." Not to revisit the controversy that sometimes swirls around the photograph, but to think about why some images become iconic and some don't. As Gordon points out, Lange made many photos of migrant mothers and their children, and some of them are just as beautiful and just as haunting as her portrait of Thompson.
That line of thought sent me back to the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information online archive, at the Library of Congress, to look at some of Lange's other photos. I don't have any large conclusions to offer about what makes a photo iconic, just a few observations. This is more of an opportunity to look again at this amazing (and important) work.
Dorothea Lange: Drought refugees from Oklahoma camping by the roadside. (Blythe, California.) They hope to work in the cotton fields. The official at the border (California-Arizona) inspection service said that on this day, August 17, 1936, twenty-three car loads and truck loads of migrant families out of the drought counties of Oklahoma and Arkansas had passed through that station entering California up to 3 o'clock in the afternoon. August, 1936. (Click directly on this photo or any of the others to see larger versions.)
Ok. No photo of a nursing mother stood a chance of being widely published, let alone becoming iconic, in the '30s. I also suspect that the mother looks a little too hard and that the father (over on the right) is a little too present.
Lange's detailed caption is worth noting. In Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field, Anne Whiston Spirn shows how hard Lange worked on her captions, adding information that was not present in her photos. She saw words and images as complementary to each other and necessary to each other. It annoyed her that the newspapers and magazines that published her photos usually ignored her captions. (Even worse, modern books that are dedicated to her photography still tend to ignore her captions.)
Dorothea Lange: Unemployed family from the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, camped on a river bottom near Holtville, California. March, 1937.
There's nothing saccharine about most of Lange's photos. Her images of the poor almost always capture their dignity and humanity, but she never slips into easy sentimentality. It seems to me that Gordon is right when she says that, most importantly, Lange's people are interesting.
Dorothea Lange: Wife and child of tractor driver. Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi. June, 1937.
A gorgeous photo, but, in the '30s, most white Americans would not have been able to imagine an African-American icon.
Gordon and many others have pointed out that Lange's documentary photography was, to a large extent, portrait photography. She treated the poor with as much respect as she had her rich clients, during her years as a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco. And she found the beauty in them, just as she had with the rich.
Dorothea Lange: Japanese mother and daughter, agricultural workers near Guadalupe, California. March, 1937.
When I looked through Lange's photos in the FSA-OWI archive, I was surprised to find not only so many Madonna figures, but Madonna figures of such ethnic diversity.
Afterthought, 4 November 2009: Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. In her earlier book, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (co-edited with Gary Okihiro), Gordon points out that Lange had "an exceptional antiracist consciousness." At a time when "demeaning racial stereotypes of peoples of color saturated white culture," Lange's photos treated Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos with respect and "actively challenged" this "enduring stream of racism."
Dorothea Lange: Mexican mother in California. "Sometimes I tell my children that I would like to go to Mexico, but they tell me 'We don't want to go, we belong here.'" June, 1935.
Lange often spoke at length with her subjects and wrote down what they said to her in notebooks. She often included bits of conversation in her captions. As can be seen in the mother's words above, they can enrich the photos tremendously.
Dorothea Lange: Colored family from near Houston, Texas. Been in California for two years. Husband came first, later sent for wife and two children, who traveled by bus (on licensed car, fare six dollars, traveling night and day). Husband now on Works Progress Administration (WPA). February, 1939.
I hasten to point out that in 1939, "colored" was not an insult. African-Americans, at the time, preferred "Negro," but "colored" was not a curse word.
Dorothea Lange: Calipatria, Imperial Valley, California. In Farm Security Administration (FSA) emergency migratory labor camp. Daughter of ex-tenant farmers on thirds and fourths in cotton. Had fifty dollars when set out. Went to Phoenix, picked cotton, pulled bolls made eighty cents a day with two people pulling bolls. Stayed until school closed. Went to Idaho, picked peas until August. Left McCall with forty dollars "in hand." Went to Cedar City and Parowan, Utah, a distance of 700 miles. Picked peas through September. Went to Hollister, California. Picked peas through October. Left Hollister for Calipatria for early peas which froze. Now receiving Farm Security Administration food grant and waiting for work to begin. "Back in Oklahoma, we are sinking. You work your head off for a crop and then see it burn up. You live in debts that you can never get out of. This isn't a good life, but I say that it's a better life than it was." February, 1939.
Lange was deeply commited to social justice and the full realization of American democracy. But Gordon points out that she was also commited to beauty. Lange understood, in Gordon's words, that "[t]here will always be a need to be reminded that beauty can be found in unlikely places...." In the photo above, she found it in a migrant workers' camp.
Dorothea Lange: Mother and baby of family on the road. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, California. September, 1939.
Lange sometimes wrote extended "General Captions" to accompany a series of photos. General Caption Number 65 belongs to the photos directly above and directly below.
General Caption Number 65: The car is parked outside the Employment Office. The family have arrived, before opening of the potato season. They have been on the road for one month--have sick baby.
The father worked on W.P.A. in South Dakota, “till that played out.” Three children, oldest about five. About to camp on a site without water or sanitation. They have no tent. “Been trying to get one some way.”
Mother says, of father, “What he really likes to do is milk cows. He can do a little of everything, but that’s what he likes.”
Father washed the baby’s face with edge of blanket dampened from canteen, for the photographs.
This photo forces us to remember that people retain their full humanity, even in the midst of misery. We need to see both of these photos (and to remember the father's tender gesture of washing his child's face) before we can even begin to understand this young mother and her children.
Update, 25 October 2009: The New York Times has just published a review of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Linda Gordon's new biography (mentioned several times in this post). David Oshinsky agrees with my very positive remarks, calling the book "elegant." You can read the review, here.
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