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Photography as Witness

Photographs of news stories and major events can often shape collective memory and how history is written and understood.


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 U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program, formed during the Great Depression to raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers. In Nipomo, California, Lange came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a camp filled with field workers whose livelihoods were devastated by the failure of the pea crops. Recalling her encounter with Thompson years later, she said, “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 shoot, now known as Migrant Mother, was widely circulated to magazines and newspapers and became a symbol of the plight of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression.

As Lange described Thompson’s situation, “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, Thompson later contested Lange’s account. When a reporter interviewed her in the 1970s, she insisted that she and Lange did not speak to each other, nor did she sell the tires of her car. Thompson said that Lange had either confused her for another farmer or embellished what she had understood of her situation in order 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.

The worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world, triggered by the crash of the stock market on October 29, 1929, a day that came to be known as “Black Tuesday.” It spread from the United States to the rest of the world, lasting from the end of 1929 until the early 1940s. With banks failing and businesses closing, more than 15 million Americans (one-quarter of the workforce) became unemployed.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A person who moves from one location to another, frequently in search of improved employment opportunities or a better life.

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

A representation of a particular individual.

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

A genre of photography that aims to objectively chronicle a subject or event.

From the Studio to the Street
Though Lange had been operating a successful portrait studio in San Francisco since 1919, she was moved by the homeless and unemployed people she saw standing in breadlines as the Great Depression began to take its toll, and she started photographing them. These photographs led to her hiring by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange closely identified with the FSA’s mission, which was to document the effects of the Depression on Americans, bringing attention to their struggles so that such events would never 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 that fueled her work.

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Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965)