Dorothea Lange – “Migrant Mother”

Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange

This photograph, now seen as one of one the defining images of the depression era of 1930’s America, so much so that the US postal service used it on a stamp with the words “America survives the depression”. The image has been freely available without restriction from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) a US government body since Dorothea Lange exposed and developed the image.

Whatever Lange’s motivation for taking the picture she knew there wasn’t going to be any financial gain; neither she nor her subject, Florence Thompson were ever to get a nickel from the seemingly never ending renditions of the image and that is now one of the most recognised images ever created.

Whilst I don’t doubt the effectiveness of this image I wonder how it has pervaded our consciousness and still does three quarters of a century later. How it is that an image of a woman and three children, with no contextual references to speak of, pitches the viewer to the dust bowl, to the plight of thousands of economic migrants and to coalesce the plight of a nation from a series of monotonic pictures.

If I look at the photograph – this is taken from the USA government site The Library of Congress  – I can see the full negative – implying that what I am “seeing” is indeed the full truth of the capture; nothing has been edited. So what is in the frame was meant to be in the frame either by design or serendipity.

If I extract the details from the image, I see: A mature woman, two children whose heads are turned away from the camera, their heads are close to the adult, suggesting either a familial connection or at least someone who is a trusted position – there is a strong physical relationship between the infants and the adult. I see the look of the adult woman away to the left of the camera lens and to her right – her expression isn’t blank, in that to me she isn’t thoughtless at the moment of capture, rather she seems to be concerned about something – but maybe I am “seeing” this because of what I know; nevertheless her expression gives me that impression. A little while later I notice the babe in arms, asleep, content, though maybe a little grubby? Looking further into the other subjects they are also a little grubby around the edges. The woman has dirty fingernails, the child on our right has hands that are a little more than grubby and both this child’s clothing and that of the woman are a trifle ragged. The woman is not made up in anyway; her hair is a little unkempt. The haircuts of the two children haven’t been done by an expert barber – more likely they have had a “basin-cut”! The woman is seated which allows the children’s heads to be at the same level as hers. There is some cloth to their left, which quite conceivably might be a curtain. So I might presume that given all these clues that this might be a family – without a father present, at least in the picture – who are probably poor and probably working class. And that is about all I can derive from this photograph there being no other contextual information – we know from other photographs in the series that the blurry upright on the right of the photograph is a pole that is holding the canvass up, but this blurring makes it highly unlikely that the viewer would guess that it is a rough cut pole, or, that it is canvass that surrounds the subjects – assuming that the subjects are indeed the people, which would be hard to argue against given the area they command inside the frame.

Without some other context, some other narrative supporting material this photograph might not be able to deliver the impact it certainly has for generations since it was taken. If I had seen the other image then I would have had much more contextual information, the canvass as a tent, the rough cut poles supporting the canvass – I don’t see the rebate in the negative, so maybe I don’t fully believe the image, but we see the subjects outside, in the elements. I can see the suitcase – a signifying their life “on the road”. A rocking chair, which doesn’t match with a holiday, so it’s presence suggests that it is part of their belongings that they have carried with them – suggesting that they have all their belongings with them – or is that fanciful at this stage? The baby is clearly attached to the mother’s breast, though we can’t see if the baby is suckling, but it isn’t a fanciful notion to believe that that is happening. They look poor, they might even look homeless, they have context that suggests a situation that places them in a place that the iconic image doesn’t, yet it is “The Migrant Mother” image that transports the viewer to the “Dust Bowl’, “Depression”, desperation and which is a polemical image in the conversation about politics/commerce/discrimination, let alone the imagery around motherhood which is a more easily obtained narrative.

Is it therefore the way by which the photograph came into the public consciousness? Lange submitted the photograph to a newspaper soon afterwards and food-aid was sent as a direct result of its reproduction. The title, which originally about frozen pea pickers before it’s now iconic title which tears into the comprehension of need, that a mother, posed (whether intentionally or not) with three children, two of whom seem so ashamed of their plight – or is it that the “mother” tells them to turn away? And a baby, a slightly grimy baby, with dirt being something we know as something we should keep away from babies for fear of infection of contamination.

“Migrant Mother” tells the viewer of a woman with her young and helpless family, not engaging with the viewer either for fear of shame or to look forward, to hope for a better place. The woman’s arm, upturned and in a pose of contemplation, suggests to the viewer that she is wondering not only about her future, but also of her children – we know that she is their mother because the title tells us.

The image didn’t come without narrative, exposed on February 16th it entered the world amidst a cacophony amplified by the kind of headlines such as “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squaller.” San Francisco News (March 10, 1936) – source The Library of Congress – And “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean to This Mother and Her Children?” San Francisco News (March 11, 1936). – ibid

Maybe it was an image that was completely of its time, an image that captured a moment that moved the public’s mood, or, perhaps more specifically the political mood that was wondering about the effect of socialism, the spread of communism and whether the people of the world’s largest market economy was able to deliver salvation to it’s own people and that the momentum behind the image gained was as a result of the USA Government seeking to gain the initiative. In just over a decade later we had Mcarthy entering the Government of the USA a few years later the House un-American Activities Committee. I wonder what The Senator from Wisconsin made of this image?


6 thoughts on “Dorothea Lange – “Migrant Mother”

  1. I think this is the type of photograph which can evoke a mood covering many situations – a mother suffering with her children in a hard land. She could be a Romany, a traveller, a refugee from Eastern Europe or Afghanistan. Many places and situations will fit those eyes and finely drawn features – against the softness of a child’s skin and hair.

  2. I find it hard to judge her provenance, so used to this photograph am I, or perhaps it is more truthful to say that I cannot get her provenance out of my mind when I look at her. The symbolic Madonna is one of the many uses the appropriation of this photograph has been used for.

  3. I’m glad you can “see” the dignity as well. I’m not sure about the term “fallen” as it tends to suggest further meanings; much in the same way, but with differing connotations, as the term Modonna. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Pingback: Photography and Truth | John Umney – Gesture and Meaning

  5. Pingback: Who is Speaking Thus? | John Umney - Documentary

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