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Photography as Witness

Photographs of major historic events often help define collective memory or provide indisputable evidence of moments in history.


Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Dorothea Lange
(American, 1895–1965)

1936. Gelatin silver print, 11 1/8 x 8 9/16" (28.3 x 21.8 cm)

Dorothea Lange took this photograph in 1936, while employed by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document migratory farm laborers escaping dustbowl conditions during the Great Depression. In Nipomo, California, Lange came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a camp. Years later she recalled, “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”.1 One photograph from that day, now known as Migrant Mother, was widely circulated to magazines and newspapers at the time and became a symbol of the plight of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression.

Lange said of her encounter with Thompson, “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.”2 However, when a reporter located Thompson in the 1970s she contested Lange’s account, insisting that they did not speak to each other nor did she sell the tires from her car. Instead, Thompson said, Lange either confused her for another subject or embellished to make a better story.

Dorothea Lange,” The Assignment I’ll Never Forget,” Popular Photography 46 (February, 1960).Reprinted in Photography, Essays and Images, ed. Beaumont Newhall (New York: The Museum of Modern Art), 262–65.
Dorothea Lange, paraphrased in Karin Becker Ohm, Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 79.
Rexford Guy Tugwell, quoted in Dorothea Lange, Dorothea Lange Looks at the American Country Woman (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1967), 6.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

The action of exposing a photographic film to light or other radiation.

From the Studio to the Street
Lange ran a successful portrait studio in San Francisco beginning in 1919, but with the onset of the Great Depression, she was moved by the homeless and unemployed people she saw standing in breadlines and began to photograph them. These photographs led to her being hired by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange closely identified with the mission of the FSA, which was to record the effects of the Depression on Americans, bringing attention to their struggles so that such events would not recur.3

Due in part to her work with the FSA, Lange became known as a pioneer of documentary photography, a classification she disliked because she felt the term did not reflect the passionate social motivations behind her photographs.