Migrant Mother: Photograph Analysis & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are a few photographs that nearly every American will have at least seen by the time they reach adulthood. In this lesson, we'll look at the history of one such image and see what made it so powerful and so successful.

The Migrant Mother

We've all heard the famous expression that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, how about one that's worth 169,000 words and 20,000 pounds of food? Of the photographs that came out of the Great Depression, few had as immediate or timeless impact as the one colloquially called Migrant Mother. Captured by documentary photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936, the image of a worried but resilient mother was so powerful that it prompted the government to send 20,000 pounds of food to relieve starvation in a migrant worker camp, and may have helped inspire John Steinbeck's literary classic The Grapes of Wrath. That's a picture that's certainly worth another thousand words.

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange
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History of the Photograph

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was a professional photographer who spent the 1920s documenting images of Native Americans throughout the Southwest. When the Great Depression started in 1929, she focused her lens closer to home and photographed breadlines in her hometown of San Francisco.

In early 1936, Lange was contracted by the Farm Security Administration to drive around California and take photographs of rural strife and struggle. The goal of the FSA's campaign was to build up empathy, support, and funding for farm-aid programs.

Dorothea Lange in 1936
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After a month on the road, Lange passed by the pea fields of Nipomo, California. The pea crop had failed that season and migrant labor camps were filled with starving, unemployed workers. It was rainy and windy, but some nagging intuition compelled her Lange to turn around and drive back to the camp, a place that was not on her original itinerary. There, she encountered 32-year old Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of seven children who was living close to starvation in a simple tent. According to Lange, the family was living on frozen peas from the field and birds killed by the children. They had no resources, no work, and almost no hope.

Lange took a few quick pictures, starting from a distance and getting closer, on 4x5'' black-and-white film. Two of those images were immediately published in the San Francisco News and caused such a commotion that the government rushed 20,000 pounds of food to the camp. The photograph's popularity would only grow from there, as the FSA distributed it widely to raise support.

Five other images of Thompson taken by Lange
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Analysis

So, what is it that makes this photograph so successful? Scholars have debated this question for years, but there are some common themes that everyone agrees on. First, we need to consider what photography meant in the 1930s. Cameras were not new by this point, but they were still far from ubiquitous. The average American only ever saw pictures published in newspapers and similar sources. Thus, photographs were symbols of the ability of modern technology to help us display unbiased truths.

Migrant Mother
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Photographs represented truth, but of course this photograph was staged (as are most). Lange said that Thompson was very cooperative in letting her pose the children and set up the shot. What she achieved was an image that is deeply emotional and personal, but also detached. We have an image taken within someone's personal living space. That's an intimate idea that invites us to immediately empathize with the subject. The photograph also focuses on the anxiety of the mother's face, demonstrating the sort of intense human emotion that simply cannot be faked. It's personal in that sense as well.

At the same time, the children bury their faces, looking away from you. Partly this is to avoid distracting you from the emotional face of the mother, but it also dehumanizes the children to a degree, emphasizing their hopelessness, desperation, and precarious condition. Children are supposed to be happy and joyous, symbols of hope and future prosperity. A child's face is a powerful thing in all forms of art, and hiding that face can be equally powerful.

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