Migrant Mother, behind the Icon

Dorothea Lange's photograph changed how we saw the Great Depression.

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). A conversation with Eve Schillo, Assistant Curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Steven Zucker.

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Lange, Migrant Mother

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Key points

  • In this iconic photograph, Dorothea Lange captured the suffering of migrant workers affected by the Dust Bowl and the economic fallout of the Great Depression. Lange highlights the impact of these events on farmers and agricultural laborers, who were less visible than urban unemployed masses.
  • With as much as 25% of Americans unemployed during the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal created a social safety net and spurred economic growth. Lange was commissioned by the Resettlement Administration (which later became the Farm Security Administration) to capture images that would rally support for these new government programs. The immediate success of this photograph brought much-needed assistance to these farm workers.
  • Lange’s photograph documents an economic story, but also creates a personal narrative. By closely framing the distant gaze of the woman, surrounded by her children, she encourages our empathy. The photograph is both a factual record and an interpretive work of art.
  • Lange’s subject, Florence Owens Thompson, was living in northern California, a destination for many displaced migrant farm workers who were often referred to by the derogatory term, “Okies.” Her story, however, is more complicated since Thompson had been in California for nearly a decade. She was also Cherokee, so her family had most likely been forced to relocate to Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, connecting her to a larger history of American migration and displacement.

Go deeper

Read more quotes by Dorothea Lange about making Migrant Mother  and see more of her photographs at the Library of Congress

Explore an online exhibition on the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal

Explore the types of photographs sponsored by the FSA

Read more about Dorothea Lange at MoMA

Watch an interview with two of Florence Owens Thompson’s children.

Read and see a clip from Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl about Lange’s role in its documentation.

Read more about the New Deal

More to think about

Dorothea Lange used photography as an activist, building empathy and awareness through her images. Think about a current social issue that is important to you. Are there visual images that have influenced the way you feel about this issue? Why do you think photography might be an effective tool of persuasion?

In the video, we see other photographs that Dorothea Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson. Imagine that you are writing a letter to the Farm Security Administration, suggesting that they use this particular picture. What argument would you make?

Dorothea Lange’s photograph documents reality, but also encourages the viewer to interpret what is happening. Each week, The New York Times publishes a photograph without a caption and invites students to discuss what they see and what they think it means. Visit https://www.nytimes.com/column/learning-whats-going-on-in-this-picture and join a moderated conversation about how photographs can tell stories.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.