How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

When we visu­al­ize the Great Depres­sion, we think first of one woman: Native Amer­i­can migrant work­er Flo­rence Owens Thomp­son. Few of us know her name, though near­ly all of us know her face. For that we have anoth­er woman to thank: the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Dorothea Lange who dur­ing the Depres­sion was work­ing for the Unit­ed States fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, specif­i­cal­ly the Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion, on “a project that would involve doc­u­ment­ing poor rur­al work­ers in a pro­pa­gan­da effort to elic­it polit­i­cal sup­port for gov­ern­ment aid.”

That’s how Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, puts it in a video essay on Lange’s famous 1936 pho­to of Thomp­sonMigrant Moth­er. (For best results, view the video below on a phone or tablet rather than on a stan­dard com­put­er screen.) Reach­ing the migrant work­ers’ camp in Nipo­mo, Cal­i­for­nia where Thomp­son and her chil­dren were stay­ing toward the end of anoth­er long day of pho­tog­ra­phy, Lange at first passed it by.

Only about twen­ty miles lat­er did she decide to turn the car around and see what mate­r­i­al the 2,500 to 3,500 “pea pick­ers” there might offer. She stayed only ten min­utes, but in that time cap­tured what Puschak calls the pho­to­graph that “came to define the Depres­sion in the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness” — it even heads the Great Depres­sion’s Wikipedia page — and “became the arche­typ­al image of strug­gling fam­i­lies in any era.”

Over time, Migrant Moth­er has also become “one of the most icon­ic pic­tures in the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy.” But Lange did­n’t get it right away: it was actu­al­ly the sixth por­trait she took of Thomp­son, each one more pow­er­ful (and more able to “evoke sym­pa­thy from vot­ers that would trans­late into polit­i­cal sup­port”) than the last. Puschak takes us through each of these, mark­ing the changes in com­po­si­tion that led to the pho­to­graph we can all call to mind imme­di­ate­ly. “A less­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er would have milked the chil­dren’s faces for their sym­pa­thet­ic poten­tial,” for instance, but hav­ing them turn away “com­mu­ni­cates that mes­sage of fam­i­ly” with­out “tak­ing away from the cen­tral face, or the eyes, which seem at last to let down their guard as they search the dis­tance and wor­ry.”

These and oth­er active­ly made choic­es (includ­ing the removal of Thomp­son’s dis­tract­ing left thumb in the dark­room) mean that “there is very lit­tle spon­ta­neous in this icon­ic image of so-called doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy,” but “whether that dimin­ish­es its pow­er is up to you. For me, being able to actu­al­ly see the steps of Lange’s craft enhances her work.” What­ev­er Lange’s process, the prod­uct defined an era, and upon pub­li­ca­tion con­vinced the gov­ern­ment to send 20,000 pounds of food to Nipo­mo — though by that point Thomp­son her­self, who ulti­mate­ly suc­ceed­ed in pro­vid­ing for her fam­i­ly and lived to the age of 80, had moved on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

478 Dorothea Lange Pho­tographs Poignant­ly Doc­u­ment the Intern­ment of the Japan­ese Dur­ing WWII

Yale Launch­es an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Fran­cis Stewart’s Cen­sored Pho­tographs of a WWII Japan­ese Intern­ment Camp

Found: Lost Great Depres­sion Pho­tos Cap­tur­ing Hard Times on Farms, and in Town

The Cap­ti­vat­ing Sto­ry Behind the Mak­ing of Ansel Adams’ Most Famous Pho­to­graph, Moon­rise, Her­nan­dez, New Mex­i­co

“A Great Day in Harlem,” Art Kane’s Icon­ic Pho­to of 57 Jazz Leg­ends, Cel­e­brates Its 60th Anniver­sary

Edward Hopper’s Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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