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Behind the icon, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange's photograph changed how we saw the Great Depression. See learning resources here.

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 Seeing America video. Speakers: Eve Schillo, Assistant Curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] 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] And 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, and those fields became nonfertile, and dust bowls were created. So that entire farming community was at risk, simultaneous to the rest of the United States seriously spiraling because of the stock market crash. 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. - [Steven] It's hard to overstate the drama of this moment at its height in 1932, just four years before this photograph was taken, 25% of Americans were unemployed, 1/4 of the work force. - [Eve] 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. - [Steven] And that was a derogatory term that was applied to these migrant workers by people who already lived in California. - [Eve] They were nearly destitute, making a trek west, but Florence Owens Thompson came west with her husband prior to the Dust Bowl. So when Dorothea and Florence cross 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, and it was the Roosevelt New Deal that put forth many of these new policies. - [Steven] So we're seeing an overlay of two stories. A larger economic and political story, but also a very deeply personal biographical story. - [Eve] 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. But 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. So she has waited for that moment, for Florence to be gazing rather forlornly into the distance, and the two children huddled by her side. - [Steven] And if you look closely, you can just make out a third child, a baby at her breast. And so she is literally framed by these children who depend on her. - [Eve] During the Depression, in the cities, it was very obvious with the food lines and the worker's strikes that there was a lot of strife, and everyone was suffering. What wasn't really known was the migrant worker and small farming endeavors, and so the object was to paint a picture and make sure that they were also taken care of during this time. - [Steven] So this raises an issue which is central to the identity of photography. Does photography document? And can photography be fine art as well? - [Eve] 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. - [Steven] And 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] So Dorothea Lange is on assignment. She's been given a directive by Roy Stryker. He assigned her very broad topics. Cooking, sleeping, praying, and socializing, and then you see what she produced. And that goes to your point about a document versus a fine art photograph, and one can be both. - [Steven] But 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 immediate impact. It was reproduced almost immediately in newspapers in San Francisco and Sacramento, and the pea pickers who were on the edge of starvation were given aid - [Eve] And 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. - [Steven] Dorothea Lange really succeeded. She was trying to produce an image that would capture this particular woman, but would also create a universal symbol, and 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] 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, 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 never have gotten over it, "and I'm aware of the force and power of it." - [Steven] It does seem to me that somebody who've 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. The subject of this photograph was at the heart of a larger story of migration. She was Cherokee. And 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. And so, although this photograph is understood to represent the migrations of the 1930s, it also represents the migrations of the 1830s. - [Eve] It's to be questioned how this would have been perceived if the title of this image was not as anonymous as Migrant Mother. (gentle music)