Destitute peapickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-9058-C. bibliographic record
As suggested in the Researching Images section, awareness of the circumstances surrounding the creation of any given image enriches our interpretation of it. Exploring,
however briefly, the multiple contexts surrounding a single, well-known picture vividly illustrates the point that many factors
shape the making and meaning of images.
The photograph popularly known as “Migrant Mother” has become an icon of the Great Depression. The compelling image of a mother
and her children is actually one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo,
California. Seeing the photograph in the context of related images, understanding the purpose for which it was made, and knowing
something of the photographer's and subject's views of the occasion amplify our perspectives on the image, and, at the same
time, suggest that no single meaning can be assigned to it.
Lange made the photographs toward the end of a month's trip photographing migratory farm labor for what was then the Resettlement
Administration, later to become the Farm Security Administration. Her work was part of the administration's larger effort
to document economic and social distress among the nation's agricultural workers and to advertise the agency's relief programs
and the measures it was taking to address underlying causes of the dislocation. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the photographic
Migrant agricultural worker's family. . . Nipomo California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-58355. bibliographic record
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. (Lange, “The Assignment I'll Never
Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960)
Migrant agricultural worker's family . . . Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-9095 bibliographic record
Whatever the woman, Florence Owens Thompson, thought of Lange's actions at the time, she came to regret that Lange ever made
the photographs, which she felt permanently colored her with a “Grapes of Wrath” stereotype. Thompson, a Native American from
Oklahoma, had already lived in California for a decade when Lange photographed her. The immediate popularity of the images
in the press did nothing to alleviate the financial distress that had spurred the family to seek seasonal agricultural work.
Contrary to the despairing immobility the famous image seems to embody, however, Thompson was an active participant in farm
labor struggles in the 1930s, occasionally serving as an organizer. Her daughter later commented, “She was a very strong woman.
She was a leader. I think that's one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn't show her in that light.”1
Migrant agricultural worker's family . . . Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-9093-C. bibliographic record
Migrant agricultural worker's family . . . Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-9097-C. bibliographic record