Migrant Mother – the Iconic Photo of the Great Depression (1936)
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Migrant Mother – the Iconic Photo of the Great Depression (1936)

August 25, 2019


Hello photography fans! it’s Martin from
All About Street Photography channel and today I want to talk about an iconic
image of Florence Owens Thompson known as the migrant mother by Dorothea Lange.
I’m going to take a closer look at the composition as well as the story behind
the photograph. So let’s get started. The picture in question is a portrait of
Florence Owens Thompson with three kids taken in March 1936 by Dorothea Lange with her
four by five Graflex camera. One of the key factors that makes this photo so
iconic is when it was taken. Lange was making portraits in San Francisco since
1919. But the Great Depression in the 30s made her leave her job to document the
effects of the crisis such as homeless and unemployed people standing in the
lines for bread. Because of that she was hired by the Resettlement Administration
later called Farm Security Administration that was created to
relocate families that were struggling during the time of the Great Depression
to government’s land and to try to help people who were hit hardest by the
crisis. She was hired by the government to document the workers and the
conditions they worked in. The project was supposed to bring the political
support for government’s aid. Lange just finished her work and was on her
way back home when she drove by Pickers camp. After 20 miles she decided
she had to come back to check the camp. She saw a tent, a woman and children. “I
saw an approach to hungry and desperate mother as it’s drawn by a magnet.”
according to Lange the woman was supposed to be with several children
their father was Californian and they were stacked in the pea Pickers camp as
they just saw their tires to buy food. The identity of the woman wasn’t known for
almost 40 years. Florence was born in 1903 in Oklahoma an Indian Territory at
that time. At the age of 17 she married Claire Owens and when his family moved
to California she followed him. In 1931 her husband unfortunately died from
tuberculosis. She was pregnant with her sixth child at that time. Later she met
Jim Hill and lived a life of traveling migrant workers in California. When Dorothea Lange photographed Thompson they were actually not living in a pea pickers
camp. They just stopped for two days to fix their car. Her son Troy Owens later
said: “I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying and I just think she had one story
mixed up with another or she was just borrowing to fill in what she didn’t
have.” Or we can probably guess she used the story that was more appealing to
the public and to the goal she wanted to accomplish.
She took six pictures and when we look at them the first one that she took is
probably the only one that was not staged. After that she probably talked to
them and post them to make much better composition. In the next shot she decided
not to include the older girl as the goal with the photographs was to elicit
emotions and sympathy and having too many children in the frame could be
interpreted as wrong family planning rather than unfortunate situation. In the
next shot she also included an empty plate but it was probably too
straightforward to express the situation. In the last one she finally got the
image she wanted. She figured that the mothers expression is a key to the
picture. She even let her point her hand to her face as she also did in her other
portraits to bring the attention there. The look on her face can be interpreted
as many things such as thinking about uncertain future. But what makes this
picture stand out when we compare it to the rest from the series is not what is
included in the frame but rather what isn’t. We don’t know what the mother or
children are looking at or what is or isn’t there. All we see is the expression
and the rest of the story is created in our imagination. She even removed the
thumb and the lower right to improve the composition. You can read more about
it in this article. I will leave the link in description. The photographs were
immediately published in newspapers locally and on national dailies
reporting about thousands of starving migrants. 20,000 pounds of food were sent
to the camp from feral government but Thompson and her family
already left. Interesting thing is the negatives were almost destroyed when
someone at San Jose Chamber of Commerce threw them in the dumpster. But they were
saved and stored for 30 years. After that they were sold at auction for 296 thousand USD. Neither Lange nor Thompson made
any money from the Migrant Mother. As Lange was working for the government the
photos became property of the government. Nevertheless the photo kind of helped
them both. For Dorothea Lange the pictures were very good for her
reputation and helped her with her photography career. In 1983 Thompson had
a stroke and when her children didn’t have money to cover the medical bills
they used her identity to rise 15 thousand USD in donations.
The donations helped with the bills but unfortunately soon after that Thompson
died at the age of 79 1983. Migrant mother became the most iconic image
out of 160,000 Dorothea took during the Great Depression. I hoped you liked
today story behind this picture if you did feel free to give it a like. Thank
you for watching and I will see you next time!

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