It is one of the most famous photographs in American history. A woman in ragged clothing holds a baby while two more children huddle close, their faces were hidden behind her shoulders. The mother squints into the distance, one hand raised to her mouth and anxiety etched deep in her lines.

Photojournalism transformed and shaped the public’s vision of the world around them during the 20th century. From 1930 to 1970, the field underwent a “golden age” because of technological improvements and rising interest in worldly concerns.

Dorothea Lange, an American photographer noted for her photos chronicling the plights and perils of the Great Depression was a key role in ushering in this era. While many of Lange’s intimate portraits from this period were warmly received by the public, none had the same profound and far-reaching impact as Migrant Mother, a shot taken during the Great Depression.

Context

Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration as a photographer during the 1930s. She was dispatched to several regions across the country to document the impact of federal programs aimed at improving rural communities. In addition to this job, Lange was working on a personal project: capturing the real-life effects of the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange in 1936

Lange noticed a particularly depressed lady on a self-motivated visit to a campground teeming with out-of-work pea pickers and was driven to shoot her.  “I noticed and approached the hungry and frantic mother, as though pulled by a magnet.” In a 1960 interview with Popular Photography Lange recounts, “I don’t recall how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do recall she didn’t ask me any questions.” She took six pictures with the woman’s permission, one of which is the now-iconic Migrant Mother.

The Subject

Migrant Mother displays a mother agricultural worker with two little children and a sleeping baby on her lap. She sits with her children staring into the distance and gently holding her hand to her face as if deep in concentration. With her anxious countenance, worn-out clothes, and unclean children, it is evident that this family is struggling like so many others in the 1930s.

Story

So, who exactly is this subject?

Even Lange was apprehensive when she captured the close series of images. All she knew was her age, that she was a mother, and that she was clearly in pain. “I didn’t inquire about her name or background. She told me she was 32 years old. She claimed that they had been subsisting on frozen veggies from nearby fields and birds that the children had killed. She had just sold her automobile tires to buy food.”

It took almost 40 years for the woman’s identity to be disclosed. Florence Thompson, a widowed mother of seven from Oklahoma was her name. She and her husband, Cleo, moved to California in the 1920s, where Cleo died of TB in 1931. She was pregnant with her sixth child and had to work many jobs to maintain her family. “I used to work in hospitals. I worked at a bar. I prepared the food. I used to work in the fields. In 1979, she recollected, “I did a little bit of everything to make a livelihood for my kids.” The need to provide for her family put them in the camp, where she and other suffering farmers dealt with the fact that, according to Lange, “the pea harvest had frozen and there was no job for anybody.”

Dorothea Lange, “Drought refugees from Oklahoma at work in the pea fields near Nipomo, California.”
Photo: The Library of Congress

When Lange approached Thompson she agreed to take part in the picture shoot in the belief that it would help expose the truth about her precarious position. “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children snuggled around her” Lange recounts, “and appeared to know that my images may assist her, and so she helped me.” There was a sense of equality to it.”

While the images raised awareness about the farmers’ plight and enhanced Lange’s professional reputation as a photojournalist, Thompson later denied ever speaking to Lange and expressed sorrow for posing for her. “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture.” Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression quotes her as saying, “I’m not going to make a dime off of it. She didn’t even ask for my name. She stated that she would not sell the photographs. She promised to send me a copy. She’s never done it.” Unfortunately, this was mostly because Lange was a government employee, so her images were placed in the public domain.

Thompson (seated) with three of her daughters
Photo: From ‘Dust Bowl Descent’ (1984) by Bill Ganzel

Today’s Photograph

Migrant Mother has been recognized as a representation of life during the Great Depression and hailed as Lange’s finest work since its initial release in the 1930s. While the negative image is kept in the Library of Congress (with Lange’s original description, destitute pea pickers in California. Seven children were born to her. 32 years old. Gelatin silver copies of the shot, taken in Nipomo, California, are still housed in some of the world’s largest museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate.

The whole Migrant Mother series can be seen below.

Dorothea Lange, ‘Nipomo, Calif. March 1936. Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children and their mother, aged 32. The father is a native Californian.’
Photo: The Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange
Photo: The Dorothea Lange Archive, Oakland Museum
Dorothea Lange, ‘Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven children without food. Mother aged 32, father is a native Californian. March 1936.’
Photo: The Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange, ‘Nipomo, Calif. Mar. 1936. Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged 32, the father is a native Californian. Destitute in a pea pickers camp, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Most of the 2,500 people in this camp were destitute.’
Photo: The Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange, ‘Nipomo, Calif. Mar. 1936. Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged 32. Father is a native Californian.’
Photo: The Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange, ‘Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children.’
Photo: The Library of Congress