Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo California, 1936, printed later, gelatin silver print, 35.24 x 27.78 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, PG.1997.2). Speakers: Eve Schillo, Assistant Curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the LACMA Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper, looking at one of the most famous images in American history, “Migrant Mother.” This is a photograph that was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Dust Bowl, during the Depression.

Eve Schillo: [0:21] The Great Depression was instigated by a financial crisis, but there was also an agricultural crisis, which was the overplanting that happened in the Midwest. Those fields became non-fertile, and Dust Bowls were created. That entire farming community was at risk, simultaneous to the rest of the United States seriously spiraling because of the stock market crash.

[0:47] Florence Owens Thompson was a migrant worker, which meant — as it does today — that she moved to areas where the picking was, in this case, in northern California, when Dorothea Lange was visiting a pea-picker camp.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] It’s hard to overstate the trauma of this moment at its height in 1932, just four years before this photograph was taken. 25 percent of Americans were unemployed, a quarter of the workforce.

Eve: [1:12] Many of the migrant workers that came to California were those that had to leave the Dust Bowl, famously referred to as Okies, because most of them were from Oklahoma and surrounding regions.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] That was a derogatory term that was applied to these migrant workers by people who already lived in California.

Eve: [1:29] They were nearly destitute, making a trek west, but Florence Owens Thompson came west with her husband prior to the Dust Bowl.

[1:39] So when Dorothea and Florence crossed paths, Dorothea Lange is on assignment by the Resettlement Administration, which eventually became what is known as the Farm Security Administration. Both of those entities were run by the US government. It was the Roosevelt New Deal that put forth many of these new policies.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] We’re seeing an overlay of two stories, a larger economic and political story but also a very deeply personal biographical story.

Eve: [2:09] We have available to us, through the Farm Security Administration records, all the iterations of the photo shoot she had on the fly, on the road, just outside this pea-picker camp. She was lucky to find Florence there because there was a freeze overnight, and Florence was there because she was not working.

[2:30] You can see the options that she had to tell an empathetic tale, a realistic tale. Any photographic image inherently carries a wealth of truth to the viewer that is not necessarily an actual fact. It’s a creation of the photographer’s.

[2:46] She has waited for that moment for Florence to be gazing rather forlornly into the distance and the two children huddled by her side.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] And if you look closely, you can just make out a third child, a baby at her breast. She is literally framed by these children who depend on her.

Eve: [3:04] During the Depression, in the cities it was very obvious with food lines and the workers’ strikes that there was a lot of strife and everyone was suffering. What wasn’t really known was the migrant worker and the small farming endeavors. The object was to paint a picture and make sure that they were also taken care of during this time.

Dr. Zucker: [3:25] This raises an issue which is central to the identity of photography. Does photography document? Can photography be fine art as well?

Eve: [3:33] I think both. She obviously could have chosen to have distance. That would be more of a document because you have more context. What she’s chosen to do is create her own narrative, the story of the caring mother who is carrying the weight of the world, her many children.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] That close lens, that creates an intimacy that makes me even more empathetic. And it’s important to remember that the 1930s, in the first years of the New Deal, was a moment when people could starve in the United States, where social programs were just now being put into place as a kind of social safety net.

Eve: [4:07] Dorothea Lange is on assignment. She’s being given a directive by Roy Stryker. He assigned her very broad topics: cooking, sleeping, praying, and socializing. Then you see what she produced. That goes to your point about a document versus a fine art photograph. One can be both.

Dr. Zucker: [4:26] This is art that was meant to move us emotionally. It was meant to rally support for the work that the government was doing. And this photograph did have an immediate impact. It was reproduced almost immediately in newspapers in San Francisco and Sacramento. The pea pickers, who were on the edge of starvation, were given aid.

Eve: [4:46] Then it just became an image that was everywhere. We had someone to be empathetic about, that allowed us to feel emotional about the situation but yet hopeful.

Dr. Zucker: [4:55] Dorothea Lange really succeeded. She was trying to produce an image that would capture this particular woman, but would also create a universal symbol. She was so successful that it has become the image that comes to mind first when we think of the Dust Bowl, when we think of the Great Depression, when we think of migrant labor.

Eve: [5:14] When we think of America pulling itself out of troubles, too. It reminds me also of Dorothea’s background, which is a third-generation American. She was able to go to Columbia in New York and study photography, but she also had a lot of personal problems.

[5:29] She suffered from polio. She has a great quote when she refers to her ailment, which left her with a pretty serious limp. “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. I’ve never gotten over it and I’m aware of the force and power of it.”

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] It does seem to me that somebody who suffered polio might have a kind of highly developed empathy, and that empathy seems to have informed photographs like this. This image has come to represent migratory labor in the United States during the Depression, but the story is actually a little more complicated than that.

[6:03] The subject of this photograph was part of a larger story of migration. She was Cherokee. The reason that she had been born in Oklahoma is most likely because of the forced migration of Cherokees from the southeastern United States early in the 19th century into what was then known as Indian Territory. This we call the Trail of Tears.

[6:25] And so although this photograph is understood to represent the migrations of the 1930s, it also represents the migrations of the 1830s.

Eve: [6:33] It’s to be questioned how this would have been perceived if the title of this image was not as anonymous as “Migrant Mother.”

[6:42] [music]

Florence Owens’s grandson, Roger Sprague, identified the subjects, from left to right, as: “Katherine Owens age 4, Florence Owens (later known as Thompson) age 32, Ruby Owens age 5. Baby on mother's lap is Norma age 1 year.” [1] Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother / Destitute Pea Pickers in California, Mother of Seven Children. Age Thirty-Two. Nipomo, California, 1936, digital reproduction from retouched negative (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Florence Owens’s grandson, Roger Sprague, identified the subjects, from left to right, as: “Katherine Owens age 4, Florence Owens (later known as Thompson) age 32, Ruby Owens age 5. Baby on mother’s lap is Norma age 1 year.” [1] Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother / Destitute Pea Pickers in California, Mother of Seven Children. Age Thirty-Two. Nipomo, California, 1936, digital reproduction from retouched negative (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Writing in Popular Photography three decades after taking this photograph, Dorothea Lange explained that the making of Migrant Mother—arguably among the most famous photographs ever taken—almost did not happen. [2] It was raining, and the dirt roads were flooding. Lange already had a full box of rolls of film to mail to her Washington, D.C.-based Resettlement Administration supervisor, and her work on that month-long assignment was finished. Her bags were packed in the car, and Lange was tired and eager to get home to her husband in Berkeley. Upon seeing the crude sign reading “PEA-PICKERS CAMP,” Lange confessed:

I didn’t want to stop, and didn’t. I didn’t want to remember that I had seen it, so I drove on and ignored the summons. … Having well convinced myself for twenty miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing, I made a U-turn on the empty highway. [3]

She eventually did turn around, and toward the camp of 2,500 out-of-work migratory agriculture workers. At that moment, Lange noticed what she  described as a “hungry and desperate mother” surrounded by her children and crowded under a makeshift tent. She took seven photographs—only five were deemed by Lange to be good enough to send to Washington, D.C., after she retouched the negative to make a thumb at the right edge of the picture plane of the Migrant Mother less apparent to viewers. [4]

Dorothea Lange, four other frames from the Migrant Mother shoot, 1936 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: upper left; upper right; lower left; lower right)

Dorothea Lange, four other frames from the Migrant Mother shoot, 1936 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: upper left; upper right; lower left; lower right)

In an account written in 1960, Lange describes her interaction with the central figure of the photograph (originally titled Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children. Age Thirty-Two. Nipomo, California), a newly widowed, Cherokee woman, Florence Owens, who shortly would become known as “Migrant Mother”:

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. The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment. [5]

The making of an iconic photograph

The essence of Lange’s assignment—and the mission of all Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration photographers’ work—was to capture iconic, memorable images of agricultural workers that roused support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal relief programs. Migrant Mother—which reveals an anxious mother holding a baby as two of her other children bury their heads on her shoulders—draws on the familiar trope of the Madonna and Child in Christian art as it evokes sympathy and, ideally, a spirit of humanitarian generosity toward its subjects.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, digital file of black-and-white film copy negative of unretouched file print showing thumb holding a tent pole in the lower right corner (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, digital file of black-and-white film copy negative of unretouched file print showing thumb holding a tent pole in the lower right corner (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Lange’s supervisor, Roy Stryker, believed this image encapsulated the goals of RA/FSA most succinctly:

When Dorothea took that picture, that was the ultimate. She never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture of Farm Security. The others were marvelous but that was special. [6]

As an icon, the photograph Migrant Mother is larger than one woman’s story. Instead, the pictured mother stands for the plight of suffering, poverty, and uncertainty among rural laborers during the Great Depression. Migrant Mother immediately was (and still is) circulated by the U.S. government, free of charge, to the press and the public. [7]

This was among the first publications of photographs from Lange's Migrant Mother series, which were taken in late February or early March of 1936. The San Francisco News, March 10, 1936

This was among the first publications of photographs from Lange’s Migrant Mother series, which were taken in late February or early March of 1936. The San Francisco News, March 10, 1936

Beyond iconicity: misrepresenting Migrant Mother’s story

Migrant Mother provided such a persuasive, straightforward, and iconic image of a destitute, worried mother concerned about providing for her children that a sympathetic public and government sent a total of $200,000 in aid and free medical care to the pea-picker’s camp three days later. [8] Sadly, by that time, Owens and her children already had moved on to find other work. She never got to take advantage of the “help” Lange promised the photograph would bring.

Despite caption information provided by Lange, Owens’s family did have a car, which her soon-to-be future husband (Jim Hill) had taken to buy parts and repair. [9] That car had all of its tires, and Hill would return in it to retrieve Owens and her 6 (not 7) children, so they could leave the 2,500-person pea-picker’s camp, which would shortly be raided by locals who arrested and beat its remaining inhabitants. [10]

As historian Milton Meltzer noted, Lange’s caption-writing and note-taking habits were lax, and tracking the details of her subjects and their circumstances frequently took a backseat to photographing. [11] Lange acknowledged these allegations of misrepresenting Owens, and claimed that the image did more good than harm.

Living in the shadow of the photograph’s iconicity

Although Owens and her children were not abandoned to starve to death, and would survive the Great Depression, she resented being associated with the Migrant Mother photograph for the rest of her life, her daughter attests: “She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that’s one of the reasons she resented the photo — because it didn’t show her in that light.” [12] Rather, the iconic image transcended Owens’s actual story and became a part of a U.S. macro-narrative of suffering and motherly fortitude during the Great Depression.

Owens—a woman of color—felt forever stereotyped as the destitute, suffering mother, trapped in poverty by the repeated reproductions of her image that appeared in newspapers, magazines, art exhibitions, on the pages of our history books, and on postage stamps, t-shirts, parodic magazine illustrations, and trinkets. In 1958, after Migrant Mother was included in exhibitions and published widely for two decades, Owens wrote a letter to one publication, U.S. Camera, and insisted on being consulted about future plans to publish the image. She asked for all copies of that issue of U.S. Camera to be recalled. [13] Because neither Lange nor any of the publications made money from the photograph, they did not offer Owens compensation. Instead, Lange apologized and offered sympathy to the woman whose individual story and likeness were co-opted to fulfill a political program’s narrative.

[1] Roger Sprague, “Migrant Mother: The Story as Told By Her Grandson.”

[2] Martha Rosler, Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004), p. 184. In this essay, Rosler suggests that Migrant Mother was the most widely reproduced photograph in the world.

[3] Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget,” Popular Photography (Feb. 1960), pp. 42–43, 128. Reprinted in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, edited by Liz Heron and Val Williams (New York: I.B. Taurus, 1996), pp. 151–52.

[4] Sarah Meister, “Piecing Together Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother,” Museum of Modern Art (Feb. 6, 2020).

[5] Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget” (1960), in Illuminations (1996) pp. 151–52. In many accounts, Florence Owens is identified as Florence Owens Thompson. However, she would not marry George Basil Thompson until 1949, and kept the name Owens after the death of her first husband, Cleo Owens, in 1931: “Florence Owens Hills,” April 16, 1940, Census Records, Kern County, California, Sheet 8B, S.D. No.10, E.D. Nos. 15–44, Line 75. Department of Commerce—Bureau of the Census.

[6] Milton Meltzer, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978), p. 133. Italics are Meltzer’s emphasis.

[7] See “Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection,” Library of Congress.

[8] Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), p. 237. The photograph was first published in The San Francisco News on March 10, 1936.

[9] Sprague, “Migrant Mother.”

[10] Gordon (2009), pp. 236–37.

[11] Meltzer (1978), p. 131.

[12] Owens’s unnamed daughter is quoted in: Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” San Jose Metro (January 19–25, 1995), p. 22.

[13] Gordon (2009), p. 241.

This photograph at LACMA

This photograph at the Library of Congress

Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009).

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 53–67 (excerpt here).

Sarah Meister, Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2019).

Sally Stein, Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender (London: MACK Books, 2020).

Cite this page as: Dr. Kris Belden-Adams, "Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother," in Smarthistory, August 14, 2023, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/dorothea-lange-migrant-mother/.