Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Migrant Mother

with 28 comments


Dorothea Lange was one of the photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the social condition as a result of the Depression. Exhausted from photographing farms in Nipomo, California, Lange turned down a dirt road to investigate a migrant camp of pea pickers. In less than fifteen minutes, Lange was back on the road after making five exposures of a woman (Florence Thompson) and her children in the camp. Lange thought Thompson’s nervous gesture of placing her hand on her mouth as dignified and framed one of the photos to echo Madonna and child, and American values of endurance in the face of adversity, and submitted it (titled Migrant Mother) to her agency.

The next day, the photo appeared on the front page of the San Francisco News and became instantly famous, putting a human face to the Great Depression. Lange admitted that she avoided asking the woman’s name because she wanted her photos to tell not just a personal story but also to symbolize the stories of hundreds of other migrant families: “I saw and approached a 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.”

Florence Thompson, then aged 33, was of Cherokee Indian descent and was mother of 7 children. She died in 1983 at age 80, bitter that her famous image had been sold around the world without any benefits coming to her. She tried to have the publication of the photograph stopped, but was told that it was then in the public domain.  The girl on her left shoulder,  Katherine, is alive today and at age 76, is living in Modesto, CA.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 22, 2009 at 9:53 am

28 Responses

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  1. […] A photograph of Dorothea Lange from the Library of Congress’ Farm Security Administration collection shows her sitting on the roof of an automobile, cradling a camera in her lap. The caption reads, “Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California,” and the date given is February 1936. It was in February 1936 in California that Lange took the iconic Migrant Mother photograph in California. The history detective’s instinct is to ask, is that Graflex 4×5 Series D the same camera with which she took what is among, say, the five most famous photographs in history? […]

  2. […] took the photo to his boss at the FSA (legendary Roy Stryker, who oversaw a stellar team of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans and many more at the FSA). Stryker “told me I’d gotten the […]

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