Dorothea Nutzhorn was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. Two incidents in her childhood shaped the ambitious yet sensitive woman she would become: At age seven she came down with polio and at twelve her parent’s marriage dissolved. Left with an awkward limp and unresolved anger toward her family, she was determined to move forward. A sense of adventure took her from New York to San Francisco in 1919, where she renamed herself Dorothea Lange (her mother’s maiden name) and used her newly-acquired skills in photography to set up a studio. While the Depression was a time of lost opportunity for most Americans, it was a time of enormous growth for Lange, who divorced her first husband, married again, and became part of a team of government photographers now celebrated for creating a moving visual document of a difficult era.
What is a “visual life”?
Photographer Dorothea Lange, whose picture Migrant Mother is one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, believed it was important to lead a “visual life.”
What did she mean by that?
In the 1930s, Lange worked for a government program that documented relief sent to farmers who had been hit hard by the collapse of the U.S. economy. Her images of desperately poor families told the stories of those who had been unfortunate. They also drew the sympathy and support of the American public. Her camera gave a voice to people who might have been forgotten. Lange used the lens as a tool to lead a “visual life”—to communicate the difficult beauty and power of what she witnessed.
As a young woman, Lange’s ability to work well with people led to her success as a portrait photographer. With time, her artistry and skill with the camera improved and her interest in social issues deepened. After the stock market crash of 1929, the country plunged into a deep economic slump known as the Great Depression. Severe drought in the 1930s ravaged millions of acres of farmland and brought on the Dust Bowl, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee the damaged prairie states for California, where they hoped for a better life.
Lange and her soon-to-be husband, economist Paul Taylor, began to document the plight of migrant farm workers who lived in squalor in California labor camps. Her work earned her a job with one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs—the Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration)—in 1935. While touring the country on behalf of the agency, Lange came across a hungry and desperate mother and took several pictures of her, one of which would become known as Migrant Mother.
Dorothea Lange believed the camera was an instrument of democracy. She tried to be open-minded and approached her subjects with respect. She died in 1965 at the age of 70, but her personal philosophy continues to influence documentary photographers, and her extraordinary pictures allow Americans to see other Americans in a new light.
Dorothea Lange was returning home from an assignment for the Resettlement Association in March of 1936 when she came across a sign near Nipomo, California, that would change her life: PEA-PICKERS CAMP. Although she had all the pictures she needed, something compelled her to stop:
|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 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 32. 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 [shed] 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. The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.
Soon after, Lange shared the story about the pea-pickers with the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. He published an article that included two of her images, prompting federal authorities to send 20,000 pounds of critically-needed food to the camp.
Who was “Migrant Mother”?
Forty years after Lange took her famous photograph, a reporter located the woman known as Migrant Mother. She was living in a trailer home in Modesto, California. Her name was Florence Thompson. Mrs. Thompson saw Lange’s photo as a bit of a curse. She was ashamed of revisiting the poverty she endured decades earlier, but her children came to a different conclusion. They were proud of the woman who sacrificed for her family and became a symbol of female strength in times of adversity.
What Do You See?
Look carefully at the photograph Lange took that day. How is Migrant Mother different from portraits of your family or friends? How does the photo make you feel?
Things to consider:
- Why is the image in black and white? Color film was rare in the 1930s. It was expensive, sensitive to changes in temperature, and difficult to process. In addition, many documentary photographers felt that color would distract the viewer and change the intention of the photograph, so most, like Lange, used only black and white film.
- Why is no one smiling? Documentary photography is different from portrait photography. Rather than pose a family and capture them smiling, the documentary photographer tries to tell an important story by showing people as they are in the landscape—whether they are at home, work, or school.
- Why do the two children on either side of their mother hide their faces from the camera? The children at the pea-pickers camp in California may never have seen a camera. Cameras were expensive and a relatively rare fixture in rural homes. When Lange, a stranger, approached them with what looked like a large imposing box, the children may have been frightened. However, it may be that Lange purposely posed the children with their backs turned, so the viewer would focus on their mother’s face. Their huddled backs imply shame at living in such squalor and make us sense Migrant Mother’s profound anguish.
- What is the mother looking at? We really don’t know. Lange asked the mother for permission before she took the pictures, but the woman may not have realized when the photographer was actually clicking the shutter. Or, maybe the mother’s hunger and fatigue were so great, that she simply didn’t care about Lange’s presence. Experienced documentary photographers like Lange knew how to grow small behind the camera and become quiet observers of the scene before them.
- What is the bundle in the mother’s lap? The bundle is a baby wrapped in rags, who almost seems lifeless.
- Why is this photograph considered a master work? Lange composed the picture carefully, so that the viewer would focus on the mother’s beauty, faded by a life of poverty. The serious concern on the mother’s face, the way her body shields the children, the weight of her head resting on her hand, her fixed gaze, the closeness of the tent—all suggest a person of integrity who is imprisoned by the unfairness of life. Because so many Americans shared this mother’s fate during the Depression, the picture became a symbol of their situation. And because poverty and injustice remain critical social issues today, the picture has become an icon—or a master work.
Find out more about Dorothea Lange, the Great Depression, America’s Dust Bowl, and documentary photography. Here’s a start:
- View more Depression-era images by Dorothea Lange at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs website at http://www.loc.gov/pictures. As you browse through them, think of how they compare to Migrant Mother. Then look at the five different shots Lange took of the mother in the pea-pickers camp (in the media player above). Why do you think the image we know as Migrant Mother became more famous than the others? In the last print, notice the thumb holding a tent pole at lower right. Lange erased it in the final version. Why do you think she made that change to the photograph?
- Visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQPS3KI5-yM and hear Dorothea Lange discuss her photographs and the difficulty of leading a visual life.
- Watch a video about the Dust Bowl at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVoXW4YrqTs to hear stories of those who survived.
- Explore the work of other photographers of the Depression, including Walker Evans, John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fadocamer.html.
- Read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a heartbreaking novel about Dust Bowl refugees, and listen to Woody’s Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Blues” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQYKJaWuj0Y .
- Use your camera, computer, or cell phone to tell an important story through photographs. Try to apply Lange’s philosophy—be open-minded and respectful of your subjects. Let the camera speak for them. Engage your subjects, but don’t make yourself the subject. Show your images to friends or classmates and see how they react. Did you manage to communicate successfully through pictures? Did the message come through? Congratulations! Now you know what it means to lead a “visual life.”