Lange’s first assignment was for the California State Emergency Relief Administration, investigating the conditions of migrant farmers. Farm work in California had long relied on migrant labor, but Lange found the fields populated by an increasing number of “Dust Bowl refugees” — displaced tenant farmers and smallholders from the plains desperately seeking work out west. She documented the appalling conditions of these families, not only by taking intimate portraits, but also by adding captions that described their experiences. Lange’s most famous work is representative of this period, known today as “Migrant Mother.”
While Lange’s annotations often reflected long conversations with her subjects, her caption for “Migrant Mother” was a gross misrepresentation. The woman in the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, later revealed that her family were not recent migrants. They had lived in the state for years and were simply passing through Nipomo when their car broke down. Although she became the quintessential “Okie,” Thompson was not an Oklahoma refugee of the Dust Bowl but rather a member of the Cherokee Nation whose husband was in town with their older children at the time buying car parts.
Davis, Lennard J. “Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange and the Truth of Photography,” Los Angeles Review of Books, March 4, 2020.
“Migrant Mother” was often in the newspaper, alongside a series about the pea pickers’ camp. The image and related articles helped rally concern for conditions in the camp, prompting the State Relief agency to send vital food assistance. But Florence Owens Thompson’s family did not benefit from that aid, nor did they feel appropriately compensated. Thompson wrote to Lange, asking that she remove the image from circulation. “Migrant Mother” serves as a reminder to consider the social relations between photographers and their subjects, the limits of photography as advocacy, and the ethical stakes of documenting poverty and hunger.
Davis, Lennard J. “Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange and the Truth of Photography, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 4, 2020.
Galleries & Exhibits
- 11865-1925: Hunger in the Industrial City
- 21929-1940: America in Crisis and Recovery
- 31945-1965: WWII and the Paradoxes of the Postwar Era
- 41955-1980: The Fight for the Right to Food
- 51975-1996: The Unmaking of the Great Society
- 61997-Present: How It Is — And How It Should Be