Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange and the Truth of Photography

By Lennard J. DavisMarch 4, 2020

Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange and the Truth of Photography
THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART in New York opened, on February 9, the first major retrospective on the photography of Dorothea Lange in 50 years. Lange’s work photographing poor Americans for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression is well known. Perhaps most famous is the photograph known as the “Migrant Mother.” Most US viewers have seen the picture in one form or another. It has been widely anthologized, used in posters, and even became a postage stamp. Dubbed the “Mona Lisa” of Depression-era photography, it is one of two or three photographs that represent that era.

We can look at the photo as an iconic representation of true American grit in the face of adversity. But a photograph also performs an act of transformation; it takes a moment fluid in time and fixes it into a timeless image. Thus, Lange’s photo has turned an impoverished woman (who only much later was identified as Florence Owens Thompson) into an object — whether of admiration, pity, or fascination — for the consumption of a more affluent public. But what if we try to return the picture to its fluid moment, as an encounter between two people — Lange and Thompson?

Let’s place the picture in the context in which it was taken. Lange had been a San Francisco portrait photographer working out of a commercial studio on Sutter Street near Union Square, in a high-rent building that housed a “distinguished art gallery” and an Elizabeth Arden beauty salon. She moved in wealthy and cultured circles, having come from an elite family; her father was a lawyer, member of the local board of trade, and was elected as a representative to the state house. Among Lange’s friends were Imogen Cunningham, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. When she had to close her studio during the Depression, she took to street photography of the poor and homeless, as many of her left-wing colleagues in the so-called “Cultural Front” were doing.

Although Lange usually took meticulous notes, she did not have any for the “Migrant Mother” picture taken in 1936. Twenty-four years later, Lange wrote up her recollections for an article in Popular Photography entitled “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget.” In this piece, she said that she had been “traveling in the field alone for a month, photographing the migratory farm labor of California” during a “cold, miserable winter.” As she was driving through Nipomo, near San Luis Obispo, she saw in passing — actually “barely saw […] out of the corner of my eye” — a “crude sign” that read, “Pea Pickers Camp.” She drove 20 miles further, all the while arguing with herself, then turned around and drove back. Parking the car, she grabbed her camera and entered the camp. Here’s her account:

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. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. 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. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

The haunting and disturbing part of this account is when Lange describes the encounter as having “a sort of equality about it.” How could there be an equality between the well-dressed woman with her camera and the poor, rain-soaked migrant with her three children?

Perhaps we can understand this moment better if we take it in stages, almost as the two women experienced it. Lange tells us that she was in the camp for “only ten minutes.” But is that true? And is the spontaneous documentary quality of the experience she asserts also true?

Let us imagine her driving up in her nice car to this huddled camp of old beat-up vehicles. That action alone would have taken several minutes. Let us say that she saw Florence Owens Thompson and her children and then took out her camera. The world Lange lived in is not the snap-and-shoot world we occupy today. The Graflex Series D that she used came in a large box, which she would have had to open. She would then have had to open the camera itself, turning a knob to expand the accordion sides that connected the lens to the body. If she had a tripod, she would have had to set that up. She would have had to set the manual focus, lens opening, and shutter speed. Usually that would involve using a separate light meter to assess the available light. But perhaps she would intuitively know the proper settings after years of being a photographer. Then she would, for each shot, have had to insert a pre-loaded film cartridge into the back. If she did not have any pre-loaded cartridges, she would have had to sit in the car and load the film in the total darkness of a black fabric bag. For each shot she would have had to pull out a protective cover, shoot the picture, replace the protective cover, and then pull the cartridge out. In other words, the simple act of taking the picture would have been far more deliberate and cumbersome than her account implies.

And the session must have taken longer than she recalled. We happen to know that she took a total of six photographs (not five as she later stated). In the Library of Congress where “Migrant Mother” rests, there are five other photographs in the series. What is clear from them is that this encounter was anything but spontaneous. The impression Lange gives us is that she acted as a removed documentarian. But the reality is richer: the final photograph was staged for maximum effect and then altered in the darkroom for aesthetic reasons.

In the first photo, we see Thompson with the three younger children who appear in “Migrant Mother,” but here in addition there is a teenage daughter sitting on a bentwood rocking chair. The final photo will omit this older girl, who does not seem to fit into the message this picture was designed to convey. The girl is wearing clothing that is not frayed or worn out. Her hair is a bit blowsy, but a headband adds some fashion. The position of the girl is almost certainly posed, and her direct regard creates an uncomfortable awareness of the moment. All of the subjects are looking at Lange, and the two younger girls are smiling. Clearly, this wasn’t a spontaneous series of photos: there must have been posing and composition.

A second photo has the camera moving a few steps closer. We can tell it is the second in the sequence because the rocking chair has been moved into the tent and the mark its rocker rails have left are clearly imprinted in the sandy earth. Again, we have to assume that Lange asked that the chair be moved. In the previous photo, a car jack on the chair prevented the girl from sitting on it in the normal manner. That object has been removed and is no longer visible. One younger girl is still staring at Lange, while the other has gone to the right of the tent, with only her legs and hat visible. Are the teenage girl and younger girl now attempting to avoid being photographed?

Several more photographs were taken closer up to Florence Owens Thompson. One is a more frontal and horizontal portrait in a Madonna pose, with her eyes averted from the camera. In this one we can see that she is wearing a wedding ring, which perhaps disrupts the assumptions built into a story about a single mother alone.

Another photo shows her breastfeeding, revealing a white breast in contrast to her darker, sun-exposed skin. Thompson’s face reveals a kind of pleasure and almost peace in the activity — again, a picture that might have been rejected later for its lack of consonance with assumptions about the starkness and hardship of poverty. In terms of their interactions, the woman might have been asked by Lange to breastfeed the baby. The duration of the encounter — the supposed quick snaps leading to the iconic photograph — had to have been longer than 10 minutes, in order to allow the baby (who is sleeping in all the other pictures) to wake up and begin feeding.

The final picture, the iconic one, is the most obviously posed. The two girls now face away from the camera. The woman has put her hand to her chin in a contemplative gesture often used in paintings featuring philosophers and other thinkers. In doing so, she has released her hold on the baby, who continues to sleep. Her other hand is holding the tent pole. This would mean that enough time has passed for the baby to stop breastfeeding and be still enough so that she could release it completely into her lap.

I hope I’ve shown that there is another story here, a more complex one than Lange presents. This alternative encounter represents a much richer set of human interactions between the five people in the photos and the photographer. Adding to what now seems a misleading backstory is the telling detail that, in the editing process, Lange altered “Migrant Mother” for aesthetic reasons. In the original shot, we see Thompson’s thumb and forefinger in the lower righthand corner, partially obscuring the baby. The thumb was dodged out of the “official” photograph, a decision that belies the notion of a purely documentary slice of reality.

Unlike the majority of Depression-era photographs whose subjects are anonymous and silent, this one has a history that allows us to see things from the other side of the lens. In fact, Florence Owens Thompson, some 42 years later, spoke about the image. Having seen it in a number of places, she wrote a letter to U.S. Camera magazine in which she said:

This photo since has been displayed In the Palace of Fine Arts San Francisco, also Two Years ago it was called to My attention that it appeared in Look Magazine […and] in U. S. Camera. […] Since I have not been consulted […] I request you Recall all the un-Sold Magazines. […] You would do Dorothea Lange a great Favor by Sending me her address That I may inform her that should the picture appear in Any magazine again I and my Three daughters shall be Forced to Protect our rights. Trusting that it will not be necessary to use Drastic Means to force you to Remove the magazine from Circulation Without Due Permission to Use my Picture in Your Publication I remain


Florence Thompson

In a later interview with the Los Angeles Times (November 18, 1978), Thompson stated clearly, “I didn’t get anything out of it. I wished she hadn’t of taken my picture.” She added, “She didn’t ask my name. […] She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” In another interview (cited in Marie-Monique Robin’s 1999 book The Photos of the Century), Thompson complained, “I’m tired of symbolizing human poverty when my living conditions have improved.”

Because the photographic object talked back, and because U.S. Camera magazine did forward Thompson’s letter to Lange, we have learned indirectly from an interview with another photographer (cited in Linda Gordon’s 2009 biography Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits) that Lange felt “shaken — frightened and miserable that her photograph had caused grief.”

We might want to compare Thompson’s statement, which implies a kind of theft of her image, with a statement made by Lange earlier (also cited in Gordon’s biography): when talking about her plunge into documentary street photography of homeless men in San Francisco, she said, “Sometimes you have an inner sense that you have encompassed the thing. […] You know then that you are not taking anything away from anyone, their privacy, their dignity, their wholeness.” This assumption on Lange’s part seems consonant with her account of the encounter in Nipomo. Her notion of “a kind of equality” between herself and Thompson is a way of justifying the practice of photographing poor people with or without their permission.

It’s not as if Lange was insensitive to the awkwardness of her position. A photograph shows her in what for her was one of thousands of such encounters. Here, we see Lange in her working outfit — beret, scarf, pants — looking directly at the person taking the picture. She is smiling confidently, surrounded by three young farm children, one boy gazing stiffly at her Graflex while two other children watch the person taking the picture. One can sense the awkwardness of the encounter and how out of place Lange seems, despite her confident smile. Much later, Lange described her general method to Richard K. Doud, who was interviewing her for a Smithsonian oral history project:

You know, so often it’s just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and swooping out in a cloud of dust; sitting down on the ground with people, letting the children look at your camera with their dirty, grimy little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you let them. […] I have told everything about myself long before I asked a question. “What are you doing here?” they’d say. […] I’ve taken a long time, patiently, to explain, and as truthfully as I could. […] They know that you are telling the truth. Not that you could ever promise them anything, but at that time it very often meant a lot that the government in Washington was aware enough even to send you out […] so that you could truthfully say that there were some channels whereby it could be told. Not about them, but about people like them.

In short, by the time Lange encountered Thompson, she had developed a technique for winning over her subjects. In Nipomo, however, she clearly did not take the time to have that conversation, except briefly. She did “swoop in and swoop out in a cloud of dust,” although she clearly said that her photographs would “help.” She also indicated that the “Migrant Mother” photograph wasn’t about Thompson but about her situation — it was thus not “personal” but documentary in nature. Such assertions had, no doubt, become mantras she used in her trade. Her approach was similar to that of another photographer who worked for the FSA, Russell Lee, who (as cited in Bill Ganzel’s 1984 book Dust Bowl Descent) would tell his subjects, “I want to show the rest of the country how you live.”

Had Thompson not come forward publicly, she would just be what the iconic picture suggests — a poor white American woman thrown into a desperate situation by social, economic, and political turmoil.

But Thompson was not white: she was a member of the Cherokee nation. She was born Florence Leona Christie in 1903 in Indian Territory, four years before the region was obliterated by “consolidation” into the new state of Oklahoma. Her parents were both Cherokee, and her mother’s second husband was as well. Much has been written about this telling detail (see, for example, Sally Stein’s “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity,” in the 2003 anthology Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis). It seems clear that, because Lange asked no questions, she got no answers; she was thus unaware of Thompson’s indigenous heritage.

Roy Stryker, who ran the Farm Security Administration, also seemed ignorant of this fact. Indeed, he probably would have rejected the photograph if he had known Thompson’s origins. In response to a proposal to document Native Americans submitted by another photographer, he wrote (as cited in Stein’s essay): “The Indian pictures are fine, but I doubt if we ought to get too far involved. There are so many other things to be done. You know I just don’t get too excited about the Indians. I know it is their country and we took it away from them — to hell with it!”

Had Lange taken the time to really talk with Thompson, she would have discovered that this encounter was not Thompson’s first with the well-to-do middle class. In fact, after her husband Cleo died of tuberculosis, she had an affair with a rich Oroville merchant who fathered one of her sons. Thompson was afraid his wealthy family would try to claim the child, so she took him back to Oklahoma to be raised by her parents. Looking at the photograph, one does not get the sense that Thompson could move between classes in this way. Later, when given the opportunity, she told more about her life:

I left Oklahoma in 1925 and went to Oroville. The Depression hit just about the time them girls’ dad died. I was twenty-eight years old, and I had five kids and one on the way. You couldn’t get no work and what you could, it was very hard and cheap. I’d leave home before daylight and come home after dark — grapes, ‘tater, peas, whatever I was doing. Barely made enough each day to buy groceries that night. I’d pick four or five hundred pounds of cotton every day. I didn’t even weight a hundred pounds. We just existed — we survived, let’s put it that way.

This account (included in Ganzel’s Dust Bowl Descent) doesn’t belie the photograph, but it does give it more resonance and nuance. Surprisingly, Thompson follows up these comments with a literary reference:

When Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath about those people living under the bridge at Bakersfield — at one time we lived under that bridge. It was the same story. Didn’t even have a tent then, just a ratty old quilt. I walked from what they’d call the Hoover camp at the bridge to way down on First Street to work in a restaurant for 50 cents a day and leftovers. They’d give me what was left over to take home, sometimes two water buckets full. I had six children to feed at that time.

Would the viewer suspect that the haggard woman in the photograph was actually aware of Steinbeck’s work? Such self-awareness of her position — and its place in the larger culture — is clearly on her mind, but the photograph can’t show us that.

Moreover, crucial details in Lange’s account are simply incorrect, according to Thompson and her family. Lange identified them as pea-pickers camping in Nipomo. In fact, however, they were not staying there but merely passing through on their way to Watsonville. Despite being depicted as Dust Bowl refugees newly arrived from Oklahoma, the family had been in California for a decade (see Geoffrey Dunn’s 2002 New Times essay, “Photographic License”). Lange claims the family sold their tires to buy food, but Thompson’s son, Troy Owens, disputes this. “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell,” he said when interviewed. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.” In fact, the car had trouble with the timing belt; in trying to repair that, the radiator was damaged, so Thompson’s husband, Jim Hill, and her two sons went to the town to get it fixed. After the encounter with Lange, the husband and sons returned, and the family made it to Watsonville.

Thompson also claimed that Lange promised that the photo would never be published. According to a 2008 article in the Modesto Bee, she felt betrayed when it appeared in newspapers a day or so after the encounter. Katherine McIntosh, Thompson’s daughter (who appears behind her mother’s right shoulder in the “Migrant Mother” photo), confirmed that Lange “told mother the negatives would never be published — that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

By the time Lange’s photograph appeared in the newspapers, in articles about the starving pea pickers of Nipomo (articles that sparked a government effort to bring food into the camp), Thompson and family had moved on. Thompson’s son eventually found work as a newspaper boy and was shocked to see the photo of his mother in the paper. “I screamed out, ‘Mama’s been shot, Mama’s been shot,’” Owens (as cited in Dunn’s essay) recalled. “There was her picture, and it had an ink spot right in the middle of her forehead, and it looked like someone had put a bullet through her. We both ran back to camp, and, of course, she was OK. We showed her the picture, and she just looked at it. She didn’t say nothin’.”

In an essay about Lange’s photographs and those of other FSA photographers (included in the 1988 anthology Documenting America: 1935-1943, edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly Brannan), Lawrence W. Levine remarked:

The urge, whether conscious or not, to deprive people without any power of determination over their destiny, of any pleasure in their lives, of any dignity in their existence, knows no single part of the political spectrum. […] The only culture the poor are supposed to have is the culture of poverty; worn faces and torn clothing; dirty skin and dead eyes, ramshackle shelters and disorganized lives. Any forms of contentment or self-respect, even cleanliness itself, have no place in this totality.

James Curtis, who studied the FSA archive for his 1991 book Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth, notes that “what is surprising is the degree to which they [Stryker and his staff] manipulated individual images and entire photographic series to conform to the dominant cultural values of the urban middle class,” through “conscious arrangement of subject matter, posing of people, and construction of assignments to follow predetermined points of view.”

Yet, when the poor are crafting the narrative, things change. If we listen to one of Thompson’s children, Norma Rydlewski (as cited in Dunn’s essay), we hear a different version: “Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children. […] She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her.” She adds, “Mama and daddy would take us to the movies a lot. We’d go to the carnival whenever it was in town, little things like that. We listened to the radio. If they had any money at all, they’d get us ice cream. In Shafter, we had friends and relatives visiting. We also had our fun.” Troy Owens recalls (also cited in Dunn), “They were tough, tough times, but they were the best times we ever had.”

Lange’s photograph hardly shows this side of their lives. Instead, it emphasizes the abject and forlorn aspects of poverty. The lack of agency on the part of Florence Thompson and her family is emphasized by her daughter Katherine’s statement in a 2008 CNN piece about the iconic picture: “We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.” She added, “The pictures didn’t make better kids out of us. Mother did.” Trying to fill out the cipher left by Lange, Katherine noted (as cited in Ganzel’s Dust Bowl Descent): “She worked hard, brought us up and kept us together. We all have good jobs and we all own our own homes. And none of us have ever been in trouble.” For Katherine, a slice of her life had been taken and made into the whole of her life.

Some people, Lange included, make the argument that the photographs, while perhaps invasive, served to improve the lot of the displaced people being photographed. Indeed, the photograph first appeared in newspapers accompanying a story about the starving pea pickers of Nipomo. And thus, since the government subsequently brought food to the area, it is claimed that the image was successful. But in reality, the “Migrant Mother” photograph only appeared in later editions of the story, after the aid had been sent. The photograph wasn’t the inciting image that launched a thousand food baskets. Middle-class people would like to believe that photographs such as Lange’s both capture a reality and affect that reality. But the truth can be quite different.

There is a widespread belief, especially on the left, that politically committed art has a redeeming social value. In the catalog accompanying a 1994 Lange exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curator Sandra Phillips argued that Florence Thompson’s “life [was] most likely saved by Lange’s photo.” Given what we now know, this statement is far from true. Dunn’s “Photographic License” cites the Thompson family’s reaction:

Phillips’s assertion brought out groans of agony from Thompson’s children. “We were already long gone from Nipomo by the time any food was sent there,” said Owens. “That photo may well have saved some peoples’ lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn’t save ours.” “Our life was hard long after that photograph was taken,” added McIntosh emphatically. “That photo never gave mother or us kids any relief.”

In effect, in this instance, the photographic object is talking back, prompting a complex discussion about the rights of the observed in a situation where journalists or writers use the images without permission. Art curator and theorist Ariella Azoulay, in her 2008 book The Civil Contract of Photography, says that, in these kinds of encounters, there is a “contract” among at least three stakeholders: the photographer, the person being photographed, and the observer(s) of the photo. Her point isn’t only that the encounter may have an exploitative aspect but also that a positive outcome is possible if the observed have a stake in the dialogue about citizenship that is played out. Had Florence Owens Thompson actually wanted the photograph to display her deprived social status, her give and take with Lange — and others who subsequently appropriated the image — would have taken a much different form.

And, of course, there is also the very real issue of financial gain. None of the FSA photographers held copyright over their photographs, although Lange seems to have been one of the few allowed to develop her own pictures and keep copies of her work. Nevertheless, she did not directly profit from the “Migrant Mother” photograph, although she did so indirectly, via the cultural capital that accrued from its publication and exhibition. Indeed, the image is widely considered to be one of the top 100 photographs of the 20th century. Sales of the photo were handled by the Library of Congress, which sold each reprint for $150. Lange acknowledged her lack of copyright in a 2000 interview (cited in Azoulay’s book) but then rather disingenuously claimed that Thompson was, in effect, the true owner: “The negative now belongs to the Library of Congress which supervises and prints it. […] [U]ntil now it is her [Thompson’s] picture, not mine.”

With the deaths of Lange and Thompson, the photograph is now everyone’s and no one’s. Does it matter really how it was produced? Many famous photographs of the poor — by the likes of Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Vivian Maier — have not benefited their subjects, financially or otherwise. Yet these traces of their lives flow through the cultural bloodstream. Do we have an obligation to view the images in a different way if we know something more about the circumstances of their creation?


Lennard J. Davis is a Distinguished Professor in the English Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of many books on disability and Deafness, including his memoir, My Sense of Silence: Memoirs of Childhood with Deafness, about growing up as a CODA.


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