Iconic, But No Real Impact?

 
Photograph/Dorothea Lange; Image Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Photograph/Dorothea Lange; Image Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

This story was originally published in July 2011.

Famous photojournalist Dorothea Lange found her attention drawn by a signboard that read ‘Pea-Pickers’ Camp’ in 1936 at Nipomo, California, USA. Dorothea was on her way back from a month-long trip where she had been documenting migratory farm labour around California. This image, titled Migrant Mother, was one of six images shot by Dorothea. It went on to become an iconic image of The Great Depression that struck USA in 1929. It shows 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson holding her infant daughter, Norma. Flanking her are her daughter, Katherine on the right and son, Tom on the left.

A mother of seven children, Florence and her offspring had been living on frozen vegetables that they found in fields and birds that they managed to kill. Dorothea’s field notes also said that the family sold the tyres of their car to buy food—“She sat in that tent with her children huddled around, and (she) seemed to know that these pictures might help her, and so she helped me.” However, this was denied later by Florence’s son, Tom.

Though the impact of this photograph proved to be positive for many migrant workers, it did not do much for Florence. It was only in 1978 that her identity was discovered. In a letter that was published in a California-based newspaper, Florence wrote about how she wished that Lange had not made her picture as she did not receive any money from it. “She did not ask my name. She said she would not sell the pictures. She said she would send me a copy. She never did.” In 2008, her daughter, Katherine said that her mother resented the photograph because she thought of herself as a strong woman, while the picture conveyed otherwise.

Tags: Dorothea Lange, Florence Owens Thompson, July 2011, Migrant Mother, Pea-Pickers’ Camp, Story Behind the Picture