A 32-Year-Old Mother Of 7 Sells Her Children In California, 1936 'Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange' (Colorized)

January 30, 2021

Lange Turned Documentary Photography Into Iconic Art

For those who never experienced the Great Depression it can feel like a fairy tale told to remind us to appreciate the things we have. Thanks to photographer Dorothea Lange we have the ability to see exactly what it was like to live through the Depression, and the ways in which it really ground down the American people.

Lange's photos don't just show the dire straits that the people most heavily affected by the Depression were in; her photos show the despair and pain that came with trying to feed a family with nothing, and begging for scraps from people who were in the same economic free fall.

One of Lange's most well-known photos shows a woman in her 30s, Florence Owens Thompson, and her seven children as she attempted to navigate her large family through one of the lowest moments in American history.

source: marina maral

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, Dorothea Lange can of age on the Lower East Side in Manhattan where she contacted polio at the age of seven. Left with a permanent limp, Lange decided that she would be a photographer even though she'd yet to come in contact with a camera. After studying photography at Columbia University she moved to San Francisco where she opened a small photo studio where she took portraits for members of the west coast's social elite.

When the Great Depression hit, Lange took her camera into the fields and streets. She snapped shots of the homeless and people waiting in bread lines before she was hired by the federal Resettlement Administration (later known as the Farm Security Administration) where she documented poverty across California and the midwest, specifically photographing sharecroppers and migrant workers to show the ways in which they were exploited.

Florence Owen Thompson was a pea picker with nothing to pick

source: library of congress

While traveling through Nipomo, California, in 1936 Lange entered a camp set up for a group of out of work pea pickers. A recent freeze destroyed the crop, leaving the workers with nothing to do. Florence Owen Thompson was one of those workers. When Lange approached Thompson she learned that the woman had recently sold the tires on her car for enough money to buy food, but after that she was unsure about her options. Lange explained:

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 took five photos of Thompson with her Graflex camera, beginning far away to show the entire site before moving closer and closer until she captured and image of Thompson known as "Migrant Mother" that showcased the pain of the Depression.