(Note: A version of this essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on April 5, 2021. It is the sixth in a series on Notable Women.)
Eighty-five years ago this month, in the middle of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange, one of the early “documentary photographers,” took her most iconic photograph—“Migrant Mother.”
Lange was born in Hoboken, NJ, in 1895, to German immigrants. At age seven, she contracted polio, leaving her with a weakened right leg and a limp. She stated: “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me.”
She decided early in her life that she wanted to be a photographer, and so after high school she apprenticed at several photography studios in New York City. At 23, she left New York, settled in San Francisco, and established a successful portrait studio, making a living by photographing the city’s social elite.
In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, she turned her attention from the studio to the street, from the elite to the dispossessed. She was driven to capture with her camera the luckless lives of the hundreds of thousands who migrated west to California from the Dust Bowl of the Mid- and Southwest.
Her candid photos of the homeless and the unemployed drew attention to her and led to her employment with the Farm Security Administration. She captured the plight of the poor and forgotten, especially sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers—both white and people of color.
Her most dramatic and powerful image was taken in March, 1936, of a woman and three of her children at a pea-pickers camp in Nipomo, California.
In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience in the magazine, Popular Photography. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. …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 thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. … 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.”
Decades later the woman was identified as Florence Owens Thompson, a full-blooded Cherokee born in 1903, in Indian Territory (current day Oklahoma). During the 1930s she and her family worked as farm workers, following the crop harvests in California and sometimes in Arizona. Thompson recalled picking 400-500 pounds of cotton from dawn till after dark. She said: “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.” She had a total of ten children with three husbands.
In 1978, reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Modesto, California. Thompson stated: “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.” As Lange was funded by the federal government, the image is in the public domain with no royalties involved.
When Thompson became sick in 1983, her family appealed for financial help. The appeal brought in $35,000. in donations for her medical care along with over 2,000 letters. Son Troy Owens reflected: “For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of [a] curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”
A regular columnist, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.
Dorothea Lange. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothea_Lange
Accessed March 19, 2021.
“Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection.” Library of Congress. https://guides.loc.gov/migrant-mother . Accessed March 19, 2021.
Durden, Mark. Dorothea Lange. Phaidon, n.d.
Estrin, James. “Unraveling the Mysteries of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” The New York Times, November 28, 2018.
“Florence Owens Thompson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson . Accessed March 19, 2021.
Oshinsky, David. “Picturing the Depression.” The New York Times, October 22, 2009.