Iconic Photojournalists Part I: Dorothea Lange & “Migrant Mother”

When I think about the Great Depression, the first image that comes to mind is the one above. Named, “Migrant Mother,” this image encompasses my view of The Great Depression of the 1930’s. I’m sure I am not the only one who feels this way, as “Migrant Mother” is one of the most famous images in the world.

So we know about the Migrant Mother–but who was behind the lens when this timeless photograph was created? That would be Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)–a pioneer in documentary photography and photojournalism.

Dorothea was born on May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey as Dorothea Nutzhorn; she later assumed her maiden name (Lange) after her father left her family. She decided to be a photographer after leaving a school for teachers and began to study photography at Columbia University. There she gained valuable amounts of experience as an apprentice at many different studios. Afterwards, Dorothea moved to San Francisco and launched her first portrait studio. Though initially successful, the economic downturn of 1929, greatly effected her business, but other opportunities awaited her.

As the Great Depression began, Dorothea’s attentions were immediately drawn to the personal, social challenges of the people around her. She began to document the poverty and struggle of her neighbors as they waited in breadlines and for work. In 1935, Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration (then, the  California and Federal Resettlement Administrations) to document the impoverished migrants and farmers as they traveled and learned to survive. The resulting photos from this project are now highly esteemed and well-known, such as “Migrant Mother” in 1936, represented above. Her photos drew a lot of attention to the experience of the migrant worker during the darkest economic times for America.

What is the story behind “Migrant Mother”? The following quote is Dorothea’s description of the context in which the image was created:

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. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. 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.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

Dorothea captured the “Migrant Mother” series in February or March 1936 in Nipomo, California. These photos concluded a month’s tripphotographing migratory farm labor in the state.  The subject, Florence Owens Thompson, was a mother of seven who lived along a failed pea farm.

After her assignment documenting the Great Depression, and as World War II began, Dorothea began documenting the forced relocation of Japanese American citizens to internment camps for the War Relocation Authority, among other WWII affiliated subjects. “To capture the spirit of camps, Lange created images that frequently juxtaposed signs of human courage and dignity with physical evidence of the indignities of incarceration.” Of course, her bold images were censored by the government, as they were also perplexed about the obvious wrong they were committing.

Dorothea Lange died of cancer on October 11, 1965, just before opening her major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The impact of her work still affects society in a way similar to the way it did during the Great Depression. “Migrant Mother” is truly a timeless photo, forever a part of American History.

“You put your camera around your neck along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you. The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange


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2 thoughts on “Iconic Photojournalists Part I: Dorothea Lange & “Migrant Mother”

  1. I cannot thank you enough for posting this blog! So often, we get caught up in what’s going on in the photos we see, but we don’t necessarily understand their context or what the photographer’s intentions were. This deeply affects the meanings of the photos, and yet as an audience, we don’t have a clue what’s really going on. Another one of my all time favorite photo journalism moments is of Sharbat Gula, or The Afghan Girl from National Geographic. I remember seeing it as a child and wanting to know her story (as well as the photographer’s) so much. Finally learning her story in the early 2000s was a life-changing moment for me and this blog entry reminded me of it.

  2. Yeah, I also believe that background information is extremely necessary for a photojournalist to eventually provide to their audiences. The Afghan Girl photo and the story of how they found her so many years later was awesome! I just recently rediscovered that story and found out that after SHE was rediscovered and re-shot, her and her family moved away and changed their names (I believe?) in order to live peacefully. I found that really cool, she had no idea how famous she was for years and years! And yet, she doesn’t want to bask in the fame. I believe there are also a few cultural boundaries that may have been crossed because of her fame, but in general, it was a really interesting story.
    Maybe I should post about that, it would be cool to document that on this blog!

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