A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Dorothea Lange took this photograph in 1936, while employed by the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program, formed during the Great Depression to raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers. In Nipomo, California, Lange came across Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a camp filled with field workers whose livelihoods were devastated by the failure of the pea crops. Recalling her encounter with Thompson years later, she said: “I saw and approached the 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. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction”.
While Thompson’s identity was not known for over 40 years after the photos were taken, the images became famous. The sixth image, especially, which later became known as Migrant Mother, “has achieved near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in United States history.” Roy Stryker called Migrant Mother the “ultimate” photo of the Depression Era: “[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture … The others were marvelous, but that was special… She is immortal”. As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration “have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography”. Edward Steichen described them as “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures”.
Thompson’s identity was discovered in the late 1970s. Thompson fessed up and shared that she viewed the photo with mixed emotions: on one hand, she was happy it brought attention and support to the area, but on the other, she never profited from the photo. To her, it was more of a reminder of how bad things got and how she resolved to never be that poor again.
The only benefit they gained from the photo came at the end of Florence’s life. In 1983, she was suffering from cancer and a recent stroke, and the cost of her care was proving untenable for her family. They put out a public appeal, asking for funds to help nurse the “Migrant Mother” back to health. Donations poured in from across the country, accompanied by letters from people who had drawn strength and inspiration from the photo of Florence. The appeal raised more than $35,000. Florence died of “cancer and heart problems” at Scotts Valley, California, on September 16, 1983. Her gravestone reads: “Florence Leona Thompson: Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood”.
Later, Lange would write of the encounter: “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”.
This post originally appeared in Rare Historical Photos. Included in Vox Populi with permission.