“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.”
Dorothea Lange was working as a photographer for the Federal Farm Security Administration. Her job was to document rural poverty in America. She photographed conditions among the Mexican farm working community, the problems of flooding in the Arroyo Grande Valley and, in 1942, she recorded the plight of Japanese-Americans in the Manzanar War Relocation Camp.
Driving north of the tiny town of Nipomo on Highway 101, something caught her eye. She turned her car around and took six images with her cumbersome Graflex camera. The last was soon named, “Migrant Mother.”
By 1936, America’s population had shifted to the cities where the soup kitchens and long lines of the unemployed had been the subject of photographers since 1930. Lange’s “Migrant Mother” quickly supplanted urban themes as the iconic photo of the Depression Era.
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Lange described her February or March, 1936 encounter with Florence Thompson for Popular Photography in 1960.
“It was raining, the camera bags were packed, and I had on the seat beside me in the car the results of my long trip, the box containing all those rolls and packs of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington … . Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night … . I was on my way and barely saw a crude sign, ‘PEA-PICKERS CAMP,’ with a pointing arrow which flashed by at the side of the road, but out of the corner of my eye I did see it.
“I didn’t want to stop, and didn’t. I didn’t want to remember that I had seen it. I drove on and ignored the summons. Then … arose an inner argument … . Having well convinced myself for miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing, I made a U-turn on the empty highway. I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign, PEA-PICKERS CAMP.
“I was following instinct, not reason; I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.
“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 did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.”
Despite the fame of “Migrant Mother,” the name of Dorothea Lange’s subject, Florence Thompson, was usually omitted when the photograph was reprinted in articles and books. When I saw it in the Library of Congress in the 1950s, there was no mention of her identity.
It was only after she suffered from cancer in 1983 that her son, Troy Owens, enlisted the aid of San Jose Mercury News reporter Jack Foley to raise funds for her nursing care. More than $35,000 in donations came in from throughout America, mostly in small donations with beautiful notes. It was a tribute to Florence Thompson.
Santa Cruz author Geoffrey Dunn’s 2002 essay for the San Luis Obispo New Times, titled “Photographic License,” cast a dark light on the background of the images, suggesting that they were an intrusion on the privacy of Thompson’s family. Other critics have suggested that Lange may have “arranged” her subjects in a more sympathetic pose.
That notwithstanding, the “Migrant Mother” photos continue to be among the most famous in the history of photography.
Many San Luis Obispo County residents are unacquainted with the fact that “Migrant Mother” was taken in Nipomo. A “Migrant Mother Recognition Ceremony” marking the 80th anniversary of Lange’s “ultimate photograph representing the Great Depression” will be held at the site of the 2,500-resident labor camp at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 19, at Tefft and Carrillo streets. The public is invited.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.