Chamblee54

Migrant Mother

Posted in History, Library of Congress by chamblee54 on October 14, 2016









It is perhaps the most famous photograph from the depression. . The semi official title is Migrant Mother. The Library of Congress says “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” The exact date is unknown, and was either February or March of 1936. The photographer was Dorothea Lange (pronounced dore-THEE-ah lang). The model was Florence Owens Thompson .

Ms. Lange was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn May 26, 1895 in Hoboken, N.J. When she was seven she had polio, and when she was twelve her father left. Both events affected her deeply. (Lange is her mother’s maiden name, chosen for use after the father left.) She became a photographer, and had a successful studio in San Francisco. By 1936 she was with her second husband, her sons were in boarding school, and she went to work for the Farm Security Administration.

The Farm Security Administration hired a number of photographers to document the lives of Americans between 1934 and 1944. (During part of this time, it was connected to the Office of War Information, and the Resettlement Administration.) Since they were working for the government, the photographers were not entitled to copyright protection. The majority of these pictures are in the public domain, including the famous pictures of Florence Thompson.

This feature started with a google search for the correct way to pronounce Dorothea Lange. (Readers of this blog have seen the fondness for Library of Congress historic pictures. Ms. Lange is one of their stars.) This search led to a teacher’s guide from Yale University. This guide is about Dorothea Lange and the Migrant Mother. It tells the story as well as PG could. Bless his pea picking heart.

The day that Dorothea Lange photographed what would become her most famous photograph, Migrant Mother, has been retold by Lange in numerous sources. She was on her way home from a trip documenting the living and working conditions of the migrants to California. She followed their schedules, getting up at sunup and working until sundown, which made for long, sixteen-hour days. She was tired, and she was ready to see her family.

With about seven hours of driving left ahead of her, she passed a homemade sign that said Pea Pickers’ Camp. She knew that a late frost had ruined the pea crop, and was concerned about the people who might be at the camp. It nagged at her to turn around, to go back and visit the camp, another opportunity to document. About 15 minutes (20 miles) later, Lange did turn around.

Right away she saw the woman who would be the subject of Migrant Mother. Some sources say she took 5 shots, but she really took 6; in any case each shot focuses in on the woman a little more, and the final shot is the one that would become the “timeless and universal symbol of suffering in the face of adversity “
(The Library of Congress only has five of the shots.)
Early the morning after she got home, instead of spending time with her family Lange rushed to develop the photographs and submit them to the FSA and The San Francisco News. She thought that these photographs could help bring attention to the plight of these American migrant farmers. She was right; the story was printed in newspapers around the country, and the federal government immediately sent 20,000 pounds of food….
(The Thompson family had left for Watsonville by the time the food arrived)
The Dust Bowl refugees were of European descent, and were migrating to California because they were displaced from their farmland by drought. Florence Owens Thompson, though from Oklahoma, was a full-blooded Native American, and her family had been displaced from tribal lands by the U.S. government. (By 1930, Native Americans had lost more than 80% of their lands this way).

The day Lange photographed Thompson, she and her family were driving towards Watsonville, hoping to pick lettuce in the Pajaro Valley. The timing chain on their car broke just outside Nipomo, and so they pulled into the pea -pickers camp to fix it. While fixing the chain, the radiator was punctured; Thompson’s two boys (and likely her male companion)
(Wikipedia says it was husband Jim Hill) brought the radiator into town to be fixed. While they were gone, Lange arrived…
The choices Lange made in terms of shooting the scene are very telling in light of our discussion about documentary photography. Most strikingly, the woman’s teenaged daughter is purposefully excluded from the photograph. She appears in the first two photographs of the series, but Lange thought that including her would cause the viewer to speculate about how old the mother was when she began having children (Curtis p. 55). At the time, the ideal family contained no more than three children; this woman’s family of seven could have detracted from the matter at hand, and maybe caused people to feel less sympathetic towards her (Curtis p. 52).

In the third shot, all you see is the mother nursing her youngest child. Migrant Mother is often referred to as Migrant Madonna… Lange thought that her subject looked too anxious and uncomfortable with the camera, as Lange seemed to have triggered in her what she called “that self-protective thing” (Curtis p. 57). So, despite being uncomfortable with how unpredictable children were to photograph, to calm the mother she added one of the children back into the frame for the fourth shot. She had the child rest her chin on her mother’s shoulder, which, though somewhat unnatural, served the purpose of anchoring the child still. She was also asked to remove her hat, which would have obscured her facial features. This resulted in a good photograph. Lange “thought she could do better.”

The fifth shot was the same, but from a different angle, which illuminates an empty pie tin, heavily symbolic of the hunger the family was facing. It also highlighted a warm and loving relationship between mother and child, as the child is leaning lovingly on the mother’s shoulder, which is comforting to the child.

For the sixth and final shot,
(the one which became famous) Lange brought another child in, but she had both children face away from the camera, so that her shot would not be jeopardized by their unpredictability, and they would serve as a loving frame for the mother. Lange asked the mother to bring her right hand up to her face, and that resulted in exactly what Lange wanted and knew was there (Curtis p. 65). It softened her anxiety about the camera into a mother’s concern for the welfare of her family. The mother was worried about letting her sleeping child slip, so in the original sixth shot you could see her thumb grasped around the pole for support. In her excitement Lange did not see it. She eventually altered the original photonegative because she “did not want a small detail to mar the accomplishment (of overcoming her subject’s defensiveness) (Curtis p. 67).”
In this feature, the second image from the session is missing. The pictures in this feature are as follows. 1- The famous picture, cropped. 2- The first shot from the session. 3- A detail from the first shot. 4- The Migrant Madonna. 5- Child on the shoulder. 6- Child on the shoulder #2. 7. The full length famous picture. 8- A portrait of Dorothea Lange. 9- Another photograph by Ms. Lange, taken on the California-Arizona border in the summer of 1936. 10- The information from the famous picture. 11- The famous picture with the thumb included.

2012 Repost Notes This was on a list of posts that could be repeated. Of course, there are usually improvements to be made. Youtube was searched, and some videos were found. One of them mispronounces Dorothea. A search for the correct pronunciation of that first name was how this post got started in 2010.

Looking at the pictures reveals a glitch in the famous picture. If you look in the part of her hair, you will see a gray stripe. This is a bit of damage to the negative, and is common to old photographs. Ordinarily, PG would paste over a spot like that, but this is a sacred photograph.

The files of the LOC were consulted, and a 115mg original was downloaded. The grey stripe was still in the part, which is where it will stay. The original has the thumb, which was taken out of the famous prints. It is included in this post, along with the information typed into the side.

A look at some of the other pictures taken that day show a grey spot in the part. Maybe it wasn’t a photo glitch. Raising seven children can give any woman a few gray hairs.

Another question is about Florence Thompson, the “Migrant Mother”. It was noted that she was a Native American. PG has decided that the expression “Native American” is the invention of European Import Americans, and is only marginally less offensive than Indian. There are hundreds of tribes in the Americas. A person is a member of a tribal nation. What tribe was Florence Thompson?

Mr. Google points us to this answer.
“Thompson, a “full-blooded” Cherokee, was born Florence Leona Christie on September 1, 1903, on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Her father, Jackson Christie, was an ex-convict who had abandoned the family before her birth. Her mother,Mary Jane Cobb, married Charles Akman, a Choctaw, in 1905, with whom she raised Thompson near Tahlequah OK”
This is a repost. Pictures are from The Library of Congress.





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  1. […] Photographs of FDR’s Japanese Concentration Camps. Miss Lange was the photographer of the iconic Migrant Mother. After Pearl Harbor, Miss Lange took a job with the War Relocation Authority, documenting the […]


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