WC deeply admires the work of Dorthea Lange. As much as any photographer, she captured the abject misery of the Great Depression and the cruelty of the Japanese internment in World War II. Some of her photos have become iconic, none more so than this one.
This photo is popularly known as “Migrant Mother,” but the popular name sanitizes the facts. Lange herself said of taking the photo,
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.
In fact, the woman’s name is Florence Owens Thompson. A reporter for the Modesto Bee tracked Thompson down in 1978. It turned out Lange got some things wrong, and Thompson was more than a little bitter. More interestingly, Thompson was a full-blooded Cherokee, with children by three different men. Those who had used the image as the promise of America’s still-extant, white nuclear family that would push a shaky nation into a brighter future got a bit of comeuppance.
But those are all side issues to the sheer power of this photo. The composition and the woman’s pose echo portraits of the Madonna from the Middle Ages, but the gritty realism Lange captured contradicts that similarity. Edward Steichen, no mean photographer himself, called this “a remarkable human document.” Roy Stryker, Lange’s boss at the Information Division of the Farm Service Administration, 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.”
Lange was perfectly capable of being more political. She also documented the forced relocation of the Japanese on the west coast during World War II (WC’s secret family shame). That body of work included this photo.
Those Japanese children, photographed here reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, would end up in concentration camps for most of World War II. This photo, and Lange’s other images of Japanese-American families being evacuated and relocated, provoked empathy for the victims of the wartime xenophobia so powerfully that her employer, the Office of War Information, refused to publish the photos, concerned about a popular backlash. Her photos were so obviously critical that the Army impounded most of them, and they were not seen publicly during the war.
Lange accomplished all this and much more despite being hampered by childhood polio (and post-polio syndrome later in life), growing up in a broken home and repeated government censorship.
All of which is why she is one WC’s heroes. Dorthea Lange, 1894-1965,