Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother

Sonnet 35

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:

Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,

Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,

And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

All men make faults, and even I in this,

Authorizing thy trespass with compare,

Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,

Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;

For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense –

Thy adverse party is thy advocate –

And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.

Such civil war is in my love and hate

That I an accessary needs must be

To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

The opening lines of Michael Symmons Roberts’ radio play Migrant Mother which dramatises the events that lead up to Dorothea Lange’s photograph famously known as “Migrant Mother” – though it had other names. Symmons Roberts allows the character Lange to suggest her understanding of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 35 as about “..the end justifying the means..” and therefore by inference the fateful photograph itself, though the play’s end has a denouement that has the two women Lange and Thompson as anything but adverseries. A synopsis of the play can be found here:

There are probably as many myths about this picture as there are differing prints – did Florence’s partner sell the tyres? Had they just travelled in from Oklahoma or from Los Angeles? Was the image of the Madonna in Lange’s mind when she composed the final shot? Was “it” the final shot? What is not in doubt is the reputation of the image whose impact was immediate with 20,000lb of food aid being distributed within a matter of days of the publication of the image in a San Francisco newspaper; it’s use on a US Postage stamp depicting the era in the history of the USA and forming the basis of many artworks used to depict maternal concern, Wells – Photography: A critical Introduction p48. A short Youtube video with Lange describing how the photograph came about is here; but perhaps more interesting is this recording of Florence Thompson’s own account, of her life and the taking of the picture – here: I found that backing track to the Lange video slightly mawkish. Lange states that she made 6 exposures working closer and closer, but we only get to see five and those that we do see are, in the course reader, not in the right order i.e. first taken to last taken – we are therefore, as readers, already on the end of an editing process – Wells – Photography: A critical Introduction p38 & p41.

Perhaps because of the ubiquity of the image, perhaps because this image has entered the subconscious of the mind in western society that I am a little confused as regards the provenance – though not about it’s impact. How I question both Lange’s account as well as the dramatisation mentioned above as I have no doubt that narrative has been romanticised over the decades since it was first reproduced. I am in doubt however about it’s effectiveness as an image. If Thompson was posed, then well done Lange; if it did prick the public consciousness of the Government agencies and charity workers in depression hit America, then well done as so few images have had the power to change anything in this world, and this one may have.

Perhaps, or probably, because Symmons Roberts is a poet I was particularly struck by how he used rhythmic prose and song in the radio play. The use of it was most powerful when he dramatised Lange cataloguing the plates. I had hoped to be able to add some audio, but either I can’t or I just haven’t worked out how to do it, so in the absence of audio here is the text that was delivered in the play when she spoke of the now famous image. Sound edit could be here:

Feb’ 16. California. Plate 21.

Rag tent. Migrant Mother of 5

Dragging round people, tired of the road.

Fighting to keep her children alive

tired of the struggle, bearing her load.

Home maker, comforter. Keeper of cope.

How does this woman have spirit to hope?

how does this woman have spirit to hope?