Life. That’s what Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) set out to depict when she captured the iconic image of mother and migrant farm laborer Florence Owens Thompson in 1936.
On assignment for the Farm Security Administration to document the impact of federal programs in rural areas, Lange arrived at a California migrant-workers settlement and encountered Thompson, who was facing the anguish and challenges of life during the Great Depression. With seven starving children to feed and little to no means to acquire food, her expression told the story of those desperate times. Lange asked few questions when photographing the 32-year old woman. Instead, she saw Thompson’s story in her weary features and worn hands.
“The political and social statements conveyed by this black-and-white- photograph go hand-in-hand with the aesthetic,” said Eric Lutz, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs. Lange added additional layers of depth to Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA, during the print development process including subtle highlights on the face and hands as a technique to heighten the emotional impact of the image. She wanted her photographs to move people, added Lutz.
“Everything from the narrow focal range that makes you fixate on her facial features to the range of tones and textures in the clothes and hair are truly exceptional,” Lutz said. “This makes seeing it online versus in the gallery two very different experiences. You don’t realize how incredible the print is until you study it in person.”
Viewing an original print of this photograph is a rarity as Lange made fewer than 100 copies, primarily for her friends and family. “We were very fortunate to be gifted this photo from a private St. Louis collector,” Lutz said.
Charles Newman gave the photograph to the Museum in 2014 believing it was too important to keep in his private collection, and that as Lange’s project was federally funded it belonged to citizens who deserved to see it in a museum that was free and open to the public.
Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA, is one in a series of six photographs taken in the camp. Intent upon bringing about change, she later contacted a newspaper editor in San Francisco showing two of the photographs that illustrated the migrant workers’ plight. The editor then alerted federal authorities prompting the government to send food to the camp. The photographs, however, did not gain popularity until the 1950s, well after the Great Depression had ended. The image has since become an iconic representation of that era.
You can see Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA through July 17 in the exhibition, A Decade of Collecting Prints, Drawings, and Photographs in Galleries 234 and 235. The exhibition is co-curated by Eric Lutz and by Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, with Ann-Maree Walker and Leah Chizek, research assistants.