"Migrant Mother" is one of a series of photographs taken by Dorothea Lange in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California, while on assignment photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration. You've seen this photo. It has become an icon of the Great Depression: a mother, surrounded by her hungry children, all of them dirty, her hand to her face, looking off into the distance with an expression of weary hopelessness.1

In the Feb 1960 issue of Popular Photography, Lange gave this account of the experience:

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.
Though Lange says she didn't ask the woman's name and history, they are known: Her name was Florence Thompson, and she was living with four of her seven children at the pea-pickers' camp where she was photographed. She was not, as is commonly assumed, one of the millions of whites displaced by the depression: She was Cherokee.

Though Lange seems to imply that the photo was taken spontaneously, it wasn't: She rearranged the children, excluding a teenage daughter, and coached Thompson on how to look weary, asking her to raise her hand to her face.

That Lange says "there was a sort of equality about it" is especially strange: The photo became Lange's most famous work, and its almost constant reprinting (it is still the most requested reprint of any photo in the Library of Congress) earned her fortune and fame. Florence Thompson, on the other hand, died of cancer forty-seven miles from those same pea fields, speechless after a stroke, penniless and uninsured.

Don't get me wrong: I still think it's a great photo.

1 If you still don't know the photo I mean, you can see it at http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/print/128_migm.html

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