The Migrant Mother

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The Migrant Mother
Dorothea Lange, 'Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California', 1936
The Migrant Mother

‘I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.’ The story surrounding Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph Migrant Mother is almost as famous as that of the image itself.

Travelling with her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, a university professor and labour economist, Lange would photograph the hardships of the Depression on rural communities for the Farm Security Administration (FSA)., established by the US Agriculture Department, whist Taylor wrote reports. These images of displaced workers firmly established Lange as a preeminent documentary photographer.

It was driving home along the Californian coast one day on Highway 101 that Lange saw a pea pickers’ camp at Nipomo. The migrant workers had set up camp by the side of the road after two weeks of sleet and heavy rain had caused a rust blight to destroy the crop. Florence Owns Thompson, the heroine of Migrant Mother, told Lange about the family’s destitution and the photographer continued to capture both her despair and perseverance in a series of photographs that appeared in the San Francisco News with an article about the plight of the pea pickers. The federal government consequently rushed twenty thousand dollars of food to the migrants. Lange’s photographs taken during the Depression of the appalling condition of rural workers have become synonymous with one if the darkest periods in American history. The compositional skill and compassionate tone of the photograph has made it one of the most influential photographs of the documentary tradition.

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