Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother presents a closely cropped portrait of a woman with her two young children and a baby. While the children hide their faces, resting their heads on their mother’s shoulders, the mother’s strained face gazes out into the middle distance. Though their plight is evident from their tattered clothes and the makeshift tent which can just be made out as their shelter in the background of the image, Lange photographs her subjects with a profound empathy and grace. In the composition of her photograph Lange evokes the motif of the Madonna and Child, typical of European religious painting in the 15th and 16th centuries. Lange endows the mother and her children with a unique reverence. In an interview in 1960 Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph, saying ‘I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.’

In 1933 Lange began working for the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA). From 1935-1940 Lange photographed the rural poor and the devastating effects of the Depression on sharecroppers and migrant labourers. The aim of the administration was to garner support for the policies of the New Deal as put forward by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lange photographed migrant camps in California, workers toiling in the fields and the drought that swept through the American Mid-West during the depression years. Migrant Mother has become one of the icons of American social documentary photography and was endlessly reproduced in newspapers and magazines, such as LIFE and San Francisco News. Lange’s image became a symbol of the devastating effects of the Depression and was even made into illustrations and a postal stamp.

Despite the proliferation in the printed press of the woman’s image, it was not until the 1970s that anyone bothered to track down the photograph’s subject and hear her story. In 1978, Florence Owens Thompson was traced to Modesto, California, where she recalled to the journalist that found her that she remembered the photograph being taken, but had not personally received any benefit from the image. Lange’s photograph, however, was instrumental in educating the population and winning support for the relief funds of the Depression era, as well as being remembered as an historical record of one of the most significant moments in American history.


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