Dorothea Lange’s Classic Photo ‘Migrant Mother’

Posted Thursday, 10 May 2007 by Gudmund in Icon of the week
Dorothea Lange's photo of a mother with three children during the Great Depression of the 1930s has become one of the true icons of 20th century social photography. The image, taken in California in 1936, is undoubtedly the best known among the countless photos Lange took during her work for the US Farm Security Administration.
<em>'Migrant Mother' Florence Owens Thompson.</em><BR>Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, <BR>FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516
'Migrant Mother' Florence Owens Thompson.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516
<em>Dorothea Lange photographing from the <BR>roof of her car</em> in California. <BR>Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, <BR>FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b27245
Dorothea Lange photographing from the
roof of her car
in California.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b27245
Although the main objective of the Farm Security Administration was to alleviate and prevent rural poverty, for many it is better known for its highly influential photography program, which documented rural life in the United States during this period of hardship. Dorothea Lange was only one of many photographers employed by the FSA, other notable names include Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, who also produced notable bodies of work during this period.

The story behind the photo

Lange was driving through California when she suddenly encountered the desolate mother with four children in a makeshift tent at the side of the road. She stopped for about ten minutes and took six photos, moving gradually closer, before moving on. Lange herself did not record the name of the woman in the photo, so the photo just become known as 'Migrant Mother'. Many years later, the woman was identified as Florence Owens Thompson.

The image appeared in newspapers and magazines shortly after it was taken and almost immediately became a potent symbol for the problems faced by many ordinary people at that time in history.

The making of a classic

You might ask yourself why this particular image has become so famous; after all there was no shortage of wars, famine and political upheaval throughout the 20th century, and at least some such events were well documented. Of course, visually speaking the image is extremely carefully composed, in a manner almost reminiscent of a renaissance 'Madonna with child'. It also has a universal, timeless quality to it that very few images can match. And despite portraying people in difficult circumstances, the image still retains a hopeful mood, represented by the calm and determination of the mother – perhaps this is the explanation for its enduring appeal. 

Our 'Icon of the Week' series is having a break, and will be back later.

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» William Henry Fox Talbot
» Colour Photography Pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

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By poojitha on Friday, 1 June 2007 7:35 PM
Nice Pictures

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