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Video transcript

[Music] 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 dustbowl during the Depression the Great Depression was instigated by a financial crisis but there was also an agricultural crisis which was the over planting that happened in the Midwest and those fields became non fertile 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 the pea picker camp it's hard to overstate the trauma of this moment at its height in 1932 just four years before this photograph was taken 25 percent of Americans were unemployed a quarter of the workforce 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 and that was a derogatory term that was applied to these migrant workers by people who already lived in California they were nearly destitute making a trek west but Florence Owens Thompson came West with her husband prior to the decimal so when Dorothea and Florence crossed 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 so we're seeing an overlay of two stories a larger economic and political story but also a very deeply personal biographical story 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 if 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 photographers 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 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 during the Depression in the cities it was very obvious with food lines and the worker strikes that there was a lot of strife and everyone was suffering what wasn't really known was the migrant worker and the 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 so this raises an issue which is central to the identity of photography does photography document and can photography be fine art as well 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 this story of the caring mother who is carrying the weight of the world her many children 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 so Dorothea Lange is on assignment she's being given a directive by Roy Stryker he assigned her very broad topics cooking sleeping praying and socializing and then you see what she produced so that goes to your point about a document versus a fine art photograph and one can be both 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 an 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 and then it just became an image that was everywhere we had someone to be empathetic about that allowed us to feel emotional about situation but yet hopeful 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 when we think of America pulling itself out of troubles - it reminds me also of Dorothea's background which is a third generation American she was able to go to Columbia in New York 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 it does seem to me that somebody who 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 a 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 it's to be questioned how this would have been perceived if the title of this image was not as anonymous as migrant mother [Music]