Reproduced in virtually every history and anthology of photography, Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California", 1936 is one of the most recognized images of the 20th century. Alongside with Ansel Adams' "Moonrise" and Alfred Stieglitz's "Steerage", "Migrant Mother" is a distinctly American picture, one of a handful which have acheived icon status in both "art" as well as popular iconography.
Born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895 - she later assumed her mother's maiden name of Lange - she was stricken by infantile polio, which left her with a lifelong limp. Her father's desertion of the family caused them to move into very poor and abusive circumstances in New York. Those early harrowing experiences shaped her lifelong empathy for the poor and dispossessed. Toward the end of her life she offered this synopsis of her oeuvre. "I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality. About the last ditch."
It is sometimes forgotten that Dorothea Lange had apprenticed with master photographers of her time; she worked for Arnold Genthe in his portrait studio in New York and studied photography with Clarence White at Columbia University. By the time of the Depression, Lange was a seasoned artist who had been photographing professionally for two decades and an accomplished portraitist. She was also an activist who passionately believed that her art could be used to acheive something.
Having seen her work of the early 1930s, Roy Stryker and the Resettlement Administration hired her in 1935. Lange was among a group of gifted photographers, including Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, hired to document the plight of the agricultural worker during the Depression and more broadly, as he later put it, to introduce "Americans to America." Interestingly, since there was no budget for a photographer, Lange had been hired as a clerk-stenographer, and she invoiced her film and travel expenses under "clerical supplies."
The circumstances surrounding the making of "Migrant Mother" have achieved quasi-mythic proportions. The situation in California was almost catastrophic. "As many as six thousand migrants arrived in California from the Midwest every month, driven by unemployment, drought, and the loss of farm tenancy."
After six weeks of photographing in three states, Lange was heading toward her home in San Francisco, when she passed a sign on Highway 101, south of San Luis Obispo. In a 1960 Popular Photography article, 'The Assignment I'll Never Forget,' she recalled that day: 'I saw and approached the hungry desperate mother, as if drawn to her like a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked no questions...I did not ask her name or history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.'
While it was required for Lange to immediately turn over her negatives to Stryker at the FSA, she realized the urgency of the situation she has just encountered in Nipomo. Lange developed the images and, "clutching the still-wet prints", told the editor of the San Francisco News that migrant workers were slowly starving to death in Nipomo. The story the News ran about them featured Lange's pictures; UPI picked it up and within days, the federal government shipped 20,000 pounds of food to the migrants. It was learned afterwards that the subject's name was Florence Owens Thompson, a Native American widow, with seven children. Ironically, by the time the food aid arrived, Thompson had left the camp, searching for work elsewhere.
Interestingly, no less than director John Ford used her photographs as inspiration for his filming of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, published three years later, among the very same migrant population of California. In an interview, Lange described the almost "cinematic" process she used in achieving the composition. "I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction". (Popular Photography, February, 1960.) The current "Migrant Mother" was the sixth and final exposure. In it, Lange moved dramatically close to Thompson, filling the frame with her subject, eliminating all the paraphernalia of the earlier images. Gone are the soggy field, the lean-to, the possessions - everything non essential. As Therese Heyman observes in Dorothea Lange: American Photographs, "The five other images of the now-famous series have more information. more evidence of context, and as a result, more distractions to turn our attention away from the central theme."
In what could be viewed controversially, Lange's instincts as a master portraitist willing to use some artifice to achieve the perfect pose, overcame her strictly "documentary" imperative. James Curtis writes that: "...when shooting her most famous photo, Dorothea Lange suggested the "Migrant Mother" raise her hand to her face - a gesture that would make her appear less hard, more pensive. She turned the children, their heads on their mother's shoulders, away from the camera to reduce the likelihood, perhaps, of happy grins that might be incongruous with her message." However achieved, the result was a powerfully spare composition where her three children frame Thompson who is looking at a vanishing point to the left of the photographer. The mother's gaunt, lined and yet beautiful face, carefully lit, is a model of concentrated thought and determination.
It has been suggested that "Migrant Mother" resembles a 'Madonna and Child' in spirit - and its composition does hark back to the great Renaissance versions of that theme. Lange's respectful but unsentimental approach to her subject renders a dignified portrait of a mother and reaches beyond the Depression in its visual language and in its timeless appeal, it has become symbolic of the human condition. As Stryker later commented, "'When Dorothea took that picture, that was the ultimate. She never surpassed it.'" (Meltzer, p. 133.)
Lange continued her FSA work, then during World War II, depicted the indignities of Japanese internment camps. She was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and continued to produce a prolific body of work until her death in 1966. To her annoyance, it is said, no other picture by her ever approached the world-wide fame and instant recognition of "Migrant Mother".
This example came originally from Lange's personal collection. It hung in her Berkeley, California home and was the very print she periodically removed from the wall to loan to various exhibitions
because she considered it one of the finest examples she had made of the image. After Lange's death, this print remained with Daniel Dixon, her son from her marriage to the celebrated painter of the American West, Maynard Dixon. With the exception of a few prints kept by the family, including this example, the entire Lange archive, including negatives, prints and papers, is now housed at the Oakland Museum of Art. A companion print of White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933, was purchased at the same time by the present owner and was sold at Sotheby's, New York, 7 April 1995, setting an auction record for Lange's work at the time.
Large format prints of this kind are considered very rare.
In addition to the extended selection of literature references listed which reproduce "Migrant Mother", the U.S. Postal service selected the image in 1998 for their "Celebrate the Century" series. It was issued as a 32 cent stamp entitled "America Survives the Depression".