Dorothea Lange & ‘Migrant Mother’

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One of history’s most famous photographs is Dorothea Lange‘s ‘Migrant Mother‘ taken during the Great Depression, in California (Nipomo), in 1936.

Dorothea Lange. 1936. Migrant Mother of Seven. Nipomo.

Dorothea was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions. It was a picture that literally changed history. That day, Dorothea took only seven images (originally thought to be six – see below), using her Graflex series D 4×5 camera. Note, only seven images … how many would most of us take today? And unlike her normal practice, for this sequence she did not take critical, documentary notes about her subjects, even forgetting how many photographs she took. Geoffrey Dunn confirmed this lack of note taking (Photographic License, 2002).

Lange later said:

I made five exposures (sic), 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 32. 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’.

There are contradictory accounts here. In a 2014 PBS account for The Antiques Road Show, by Ben Phelan, it was noted:

‘In 1978, a reporter from the Modesto Bee found the Migrant Mother, tracking her down to a trailer park outside Modesto, California. Her name was Florence Owens Thompson; she was 75 years old. Lange had promised Thompson that her name would never be published — Thompson wanted to spare her children the embarrassment — but once she was discovered, she revealed her name and told her story.

Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie, a Cherokee, in a teepee in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, in 1903. She married at 17, then moved to California for farm- and millwork. When she was 28 years old and pregnant with her sixth child, her husband died of tuberculosis. Thereafter Thompson worked odd jobs of all kinds to keep her children fed. For most of the 1930s, she was an itinerant farmhand, picking whatever was in season’.

Phelan also commented:

‘Lange had promised Thompson that her name would never be published — Thompson wanted to spare her children the embarrassment — but once she was discovered, she revealed her name and told her story’.

Lange herself said that she did not know Thompson’s name. Yet, in the PBS account, Phelan says:

‘Thompson was a model; she was posing, and she knew why. She was to represent the very Figure of Poverty. So she organized her posture and set her expression just so for Lange’s camera. And that is a talent, too. Thompson and Lange, for an instant in 1936, were collaborators‘.

I find that a bit of a stretch, but looking at the image one can understand the viewpoint. It is quite a sophisticated pose. Susan Meiselas and Wendy Ewald repeated Phelan’s ideas on pose in a Magnum Foundation seminar in 2017, as one of their bullet points on Collaboration:

‘3. Collaboration Precedes Iconization: For Dorothea Lange’s photo, Migrant Mother, Lange convinced Florence Owens Thompson to be photographed, to make her and others’ conditions known. Thompson posed herself as the figure of poverty, but never saw the picture until 1978′.

Frankly, I can find little evidence of collaboration. Rather, it seems to me that Lange observed and listened, and indeed posed Thompson for the famous frame. But this is not proper collaboration. I greatly admire and respect Meiselas and Ewald, but I do wonder if history is being re-written to favour the photographer?

To quote eyewitnesshistory:

‘After returning home, Lange alerted the editor of a San Francisco newspaper to the plight of the workers at the camp, presenting him with two of her photos. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included Lange’s images. As a result, the government rushed a shipment of 20,000 lbs. of food to the camp. The mother and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived. 

The photo’s wider impact included influencing John Steinbeck in the writing of his novel The Grapes of Wrath’.

As she was funded by the federal government, the image was in the public domain and Dorothea never directly received any royalties although it ‘made’ her reputation as a photographer. The image was issued as a 32 cent U.S. stamp in 1998.

The mother’s name was only discovered in the 1970s. She was Florence Owens Thompson, mother at that time of seven children, and there is some evidence that she hadn’t expected the picture to be published. She never made a penny from the photograph, although she went on to build a much better life for herself and her family. She died in 1980.

Thompson explained her side of the story to the Modesto Bee in 1978.

Florence Thompson is shown in Oct. 10, 1978, during an interview with Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan. Acting on a tip, Corrigan found her at Modesto Mobile Village. THE MODESTO BEE

Read more here: https://www.modbee.com/latest-news/article3114135.html#storylink=cpy

Dorothea Lange had died in 1965, apparently without knowing Thompson’s name or history.

From an image perspective, there are a couple of very interesting points to note. First, the original image had the mother’s thumb showing in the bottom left, as shown by the original record held by the Farm Security Administration. This was retouched out, and that version became the picture that we all know.

Once you know this, you will for ever see the thumb, even in the modified image. Photoshop ethics, anyone? I believe that this is acceptable, as the thumb doesn’t change the ‘story’ either way., making it more or less accurate, more or less believable.

Dorothea Lange. 1936. Migrant Mother of Seven. Nipomo. Unretouched.

Secondly, the other frames taken by Dorothea had the children facing towards the photographer. She then asked the children to turn away, and the iconic image was born.

It could be argued that the result wasn’t really ‘documentary’, as the posing makes it a manufactured image. But Lange herself is on record later as saying that:

‘A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se. it is a photograph which carries the full meaning and significance of the episode’.

Interview with Suzanne Riess, 1960-61.

Here are the other frames:

Dorothea Lange. 1936. Migrant Mother of Seven. Nipomo. 

The usual record shows five frames taken before Migrant Mother, making six negatives in all. The sixth was only found after Lange’s death. A seven negative then surfaced around twenty years ago, found by photo-historian Susan Stein. As it was something of a ‘blooper’ because of the child pulling a funny face (Stein’s words) it seems Lange discarded it.

Dorothea Lange. 1936. Migrant Mother of Seven. Nipomo. ‘Seventh Frame’.

This ‘seventh image’ did feature in the major retrospective of Lange organised by The Barbican and Jeu De Plume, in 2018, The Politics of Seeing.

Stein suggests this was the sequence of frames taken, leading up to Migrant Mother. Note, both that image and the last in Stein’s sequence are portrait format.

Susan Stein. 2020. Frame sequence.

Whilst I am troubled by Lange’s lack of referencing notes, very surprising given her collaborative work with her sociologist husband, I am not concerned by Lange’s final posing of the family, and her final choices. To me, this falls into the category of legitimate interpretation of events. The essence of the massive problems faced by Florence and others really shines through in this image because of the intervention by Lange. Isn’t that what documentary is all about?

However I do believe that the work is straddling the fine line between documentary and propaganda. The FSA project was essentially Government propaganda, albeit well intentioned and fact based.

Lange said:

“Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it? I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith. I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.

Dorothea Lange. 1980. Dorothea Lange: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935–1939. Glencoe, Illinois: Text-Fiche Press.

James R Martin later wrote:

‘There is a difference between propaganda and an advocacy documentary that says what its subject and point of view are up front, and then explores issues surrounding the topic – whereas propaganda hides its true intent, inventing fictional realities while pretending to be non-fiction’.

Susan Stein’s fascinating book goes deep into the sequence of photographs and the interpretation of Migrant Mother itself. She make a strong case that, far from being an exemplar of motherhood, Lange’s image suggests a more nuanced, gender-referenced interpretation, including noting a rather awkward pose somewhat separating the mother from the children. Throughout her career, Lange also took many photographs of males with children, showing a caring father, and contrary to the prevailing stereotypes of ‘strong males’ and ‘caring females’.

Additionally, as Stein points out that, Lange was not aware of Thompson’s Cherokee heritage – in fact, the FSA was more interested in photographs of white people than either Native Americans or Blacks – setting Migrant Mother as the epitome of Euro-American culture is wrong. I thoroughly recommend Stein’s book as perhaps the most complete analysis of Migrant Mother so far published. It turns established wisdom about the image defining ‘maternity’ on its head.

To complete the history, there was an image taken of Dorothea with her camera, by Rondale Partridge, son of Imogen Cunningham.

Dorothea is holding her Graflex 4×5 single lens reflex camera. This camera took single sheet film, and the image is flipped upside-down and backward. When the photographer trips the lever, the lens stops down, the mirror goes up against the ground glass, the fabric shutter in front of the film slides up and allows the light to expose the film. The photographer then changes the film to the next sheet and sets up the next image.

Unknown. c.1936. Dorothea Lange atop Car. From shorpy.com.

There is an excellent monograph on Dorothea Lange published in the Aperture Masters of Photography series.

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DUNN, Geoffrey. 2002. Photographic License. New Times, California. Available at: https://www.newtimesslo.com/archive/2003-12-03/archives/cov_stories_2002/cov_01172002.html (accessed 09/12/2108).

GORDON, Linda. 2014. Aperture Masters of Photography: Dorothea Lange. New York: Aperture.

JARDINE, Jeff. 2008. Dust Bowl Part IV: Symbol of an Era. Modesto Bee. Available at: https://www.modbee.com/latest-news/article3114135.html (accessed 9/12/2018).

LANGE, Dorothea. 2005. Migrant Mother, 1936. Available at http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/migrantmother.htm (accessed 9/12/2018).

LANGE, Dorothea. 2018. Politics of Seeing. London/Paris: Barbican/Jeu De Paume.

LANGE, Dorothea. 1989. The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother in Popular Photography, February 1960; from Curtis, James. 2007. Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. London: Temple University Press.

LANGE, Dorothea. 1980. Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935–1939. Glencoe, Illinois: Text-Fiche Press.

MARTIN, James R. 2018 (iBook Edition). Documentary Directing and Storytelling. Real Deal Press.

MEISTER, Sarah Hermanson. 2018. Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother. New York: MoMA.

PHELAN, Ben. 2014. The Story of Migrant Mother. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/stories/articles/2014/4/14/migrant-mother-dorothea-lange/ (accessed 9/12/2018).

STEIN, Susan. 2020. Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender. London: Mack Books.

Carleton Thomas Anderson. 2014. Dorothea Lange – An American Odyssey. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrODn0f1z0g (accessed 9/12/2018).