For many, Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California is the single most recognizable image from the Great Depression, epitomizing the desperate circumstances many found themselves in during that period. The now-iconic photograph was made for the US government’s Resettlement Administration (renamed the Farm Security Administration, or FSA, in 1937), a federal agency created to document and remedy the plight of the urban and rural poor in the 1930s. The photograph’s pictorial strength and emotional impact, combined with its recurring presence in newspapers, magazines, exhibitions, and displays, cemented its place in America’s collective memory of the era.
In the image, thirty-two-year-old migrant farmworker Florence Owens Thompson and three of her children are depicted huddled together in a tent at a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California. Lange’s taut composition excludes all but the most essential information. In lieu of the girls’ faces, we see their tousled heads nestling against their mother’s shoulders; their anonymity serves to lend these familial bonds a sense of universality. Still, Lange’s large negative captures a wealth of detail that anchors our experience in specific fact, from the frayed fabric to Thompson’s weary, concerned, strikingly beautiful face.
Lange’s work connected the descriptive style of documentary photography with the principle of social engagement. It has become a touchstone for photographers who feel that their work should not only record social conditions but also persuade people to improve them.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Migrant Mother depicts an impoverished farmworker and her children at a pea-pickers’ camp in California. Lange created this iconic photograph by emulating well-known Christian iconography of Mary and the infant Jesus in an attempt to compel 1930s viewers to extend religious compassion to rural families experiencing famine. The Farm Security Administration commissioned photographs like this one to promote New Deal social programs aiding those afflicted by the Dust Bowl. Historians have recently observed that images of white suffering were more likely to garner support and receive wide circulation than images of Black families in similar poses and conditions.
Gallery label from 2022
Dorothea Lange took this photograph on assignment for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program, formed during the Great Depression to provide aid to impoverished farmers. FSA photographers documented the conditions that Americans faced throughout the course of the Great Depression, a period of economic crisis. Lange’s photograph suggests the impact of these harsh conditions on a 32-year-old mother of seven. She took a number of pictures of the mother with her children and chose this image as the most effective. Her keen sense of composition and attentiveness to the power of historical images of the Madonna and Child have helped this photograph transcend its original documentary function and become an iconic work of art.
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs online course, Coursera, 2016
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.