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Revisiting Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother': The Great Depression's Most Famous Photo

Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California
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Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother," 1936.
Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother," 1936. | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516]

Ragged but resolute, the woman stares off into the distance, cupping her chin in her hand. Her forehead is furrowed, her lips pressed in a firm line. With the lines creasing her careworn, weather-beaten face, and the young children clustered around her, Florence Owens Thompson -- migrant farm worker and mother of seven -- looks far older than 32.

Since Dorothea Lange shot that powerful black-and-white portrait in a pea pickers' camp in rural Nipomo in February 1936, “Migrant Mother” has become one of the most recognizable images of the Great Depression, symbolic of the struggles of an entire generation. Now the San Luis Obispo County community where Lange captured that iconic image is seeking to commemorate the part it played in photographic history.

“It's a story of hope... a story of immigrants that moved to this part of the world and were helped by the people of Nipomo, [which is] something certainly to be proud of,” said Paul Lester, communications professor at California State University, Fullerton and clinical professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas.

On a gloomy March morning, about 60 community members gathered at the edge of an overgrown field in Nipomo to celebrate the 80th anniversary of “Migrant Mother” and pay tribute to its real-life inspiration. “Today we are honoring her for her courage and strength through one of the most difficult times in human history,” said Ruth Brackett, president of the Olde Towne Nipomo Association.

Together with Lester, the association is working to establish a marker identifying Nipomo as the location of “Migrant Mother.”

The marker, which will feature a bronze plaque atop a volcanic boulder, will stand at an entrance to the future Jim O. Miller Memorial Park at the corner of West Tefft and Carrillo streets, about a mile away from the field on North Oak Glen Avenue where Thompson and her family set up camp in 1936.

Research indicates that this was the location of the Nipomo camp where "Migrant Mother" subject Florence Owens Thompson and her daughters were photographed. | Image: Courtesy of Brian Dunn.

According to Lester, inspiration for the project hit about four years ago as he and his wife were driving back to Southern California from San Francisco.

“I thought, 'There really should be, on the side of the highway, [a sign indicating] that this is the place where the 'Migrant Mother' photograph was taken,” said Lester, noting that Lange's name already graces a local elementary school. “Nipomo should be recognized... because it (the photo) was so important to so many people, and still is an inspiration for a lot of folks.”

Lester has worked with local history buffs such as Brian Dunn, senior technical engineer at USL, Inc., in San Luis Obispo, and Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, to pinpoint the exact location where Lange snapped her signature shot. (Jenzen researched Nipomo's connection to "Migrant Mother" on his own while serving as educational programs director at the Dana Adobe from 2011 to 2012.) They've examined maps, pored over photographs and sifted through deeds and other historical documents.

Lester has even visited the sandy field where he and his cohorts believe Thompson stopped, and found fragments of pottery indicating the presence of a camp.

The site is a few blocks from Thompson Road, which doubled as Highway 101 back in the day, and just down the road from the historic Dana Adobe, former home of sea captain and rancher William Goodwin Dana. “This was the path of the padres. This is where the stage coach came in... This was the path of California history,” said Dunn, a former Dana Adobe caretaker who grew up in Santa Maria but now lives in Nipomo.

Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California
Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California. | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-DIG-cph-3c28944]

Lester first encountered “Migrant Mother” as a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. Even then, he said, he grasped the photo's significance.

“It's considered one of the most powerful and iconic images from the Great Depression -- (and) very important in the history of the medium,” he said, ranking “Migrant Mother” among “the top 10 photographs of the billions of photographs that have been taken.”

Roy Stryker, who oversaw a stable of famous photographers including Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein as head of the Farm Security Administration's Information Division during the Depression, called “Migrant Mother” the “ultimate” image of the era. Lange, he said, “never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture... The others were marvelous, but that was special.”

The story of how Lange snapped that photograph is now almost as legendary as the image itself. The Bay Area-based photographer had just completed a month-long assignment for the Resettlement Administration (later called the Farm Security Administration) documenting the impact of government programs on rural communities.

As she drove home to Berkeley on Highway 101, “It was raining, the camera bags were packed, and I had on the seat beside me in the car the results of my long trip, the box containing all those rolls and packs of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington,” Lange wrote in Popular Photography magazine in 1960. “Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night, and my eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out again.”

As Lange passed Nipomo, she caught a glimpse of “a crude sign with pointing arrow... saying PEA-PICKERS CAMP.” She kept driving for 20 miles, then, finally unable to resist that simple summons, she turned around, “drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.”

Dorothea Lange, "Pea harvest. Family at work. Nipomo, California," 1937. | Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange, "Pea harvest. Family at work. Nipomo, California," 1937. | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-DIG-fsa-8b31824]

That's when Lange saw Thompson, an Oklahoma native whose car had broken down on Highway 101 while traveling from Los Angeles to Watsonville. (She and her family had hoped to find work in the lettuce fields of the Pajaro Valley.) While her companion, Jim Hill, and two of her sons went into town to get the Hudson repaired, Thompson and some of her children set up camp in a dry spot away from the mud and muck.

Picking up her large Graflex camera, “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,” Lange recalled. “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.”

In the course of 10 minutes, Lange snapped six photographs of Thompson and her daughters -- now part of the Dorothea Lange Archive at the Oakland Museum of California.

Although early shots of the family show teenaged Viola sitting on a cane rocking chair, the older girl is absent from later images, Lester said, citing her absence as evidence that Lange, an experienced portrait photographer educated at Columbia University, “stage-managed the picture.”

Dorothea Lange, "Drought refugees from Oklahoma at work in the pea fields near Nipomo, California," 1937. | Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Dorothea Lange, "Drought refugees from Oklahoma at work in the pea fields near Nipomo, California," 1937.  | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-DIG-fsa-8b31827]

“She worked for the government, and the idea was to create pictures that made conditions to look as [bad] as possible,” he said, explaining that the presence of a teenager would indicate Thompson was in less dire straits than otherwise indicated.

“Migrant Mother,” in contrast, depicts a family in peril. Baby Norma slumbers in Thompson's lap, while Katherine and Ruby flank her, burying their faces in her shoulders.

In the photos, it's difficult to read Thompson's expression: Is it bitterness? Desperation? Determination?

“She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all the perseverance too,” Stryker said. “A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal.”

Lester sees an element of quiet resistance in Thompson's steady stare -- fixed, not on the lens, but on some far-off point. “She’s a powerless person and she just can’t tell Dorothea Lange, ‘No, I don’t want my picture taken... Please just go away,’” he said. “She was doing it the only way she could, by looking off.”

Dorothea Lange, "One pea picker's home. One-half mile off Highway 101 at Nipomo, California." | Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange, "One pea picker's home. One-half mile off Highway 101 at Nipomo, California."  | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-DIG-fsa-8b27077]​

But Peg Miller, who grew up in nearby Orcutt during the Depression, detects something less defiant. “The expression on her face I remember well -- seeing people on the streets with that look of hopelessness,” said Miller, who recalls the migrant workers -- about 10,000, according to a 1934 article published in The Tribune in San Luis Obispo -- who flooded into the area to pick crops. “They were making a living, but the expression on her face [indicates] it wasn't a very happy one.”

Conditions in Nipomo, where winter storms destroyed the early pea harvest in 1936, were poor indeed. Lange's photos of the devastation appeared in the San Francisco News on May 10, 1936, along with reports of 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers stranded amid the frozen fields under the headline "Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squaller."

Within days, the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camp. By that time, however, Thompson and her family had moved on to Watsonville.

Lange's photos “put the working conditions in the agricultural area into the minds of the public,” Jenzen said, adding that the subject “wasn't really on the American public's radar before that.” “The pressure from the public inspired the government to step in and provide aid to these farmers.”

But while “Migrant Mother” brought to light the dire conditions in the camps, lent inspiration to the likes of “The Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinbeck and watercolorist Millard Sheets, and made Lange, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941, one of modern photography's most celebrated figures, the photo’s subject remained mired in obscurity.

Dorothea Lange, "Japanese mother and daughter, agricultural workers near Guadalupe, California." | Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange, "Japanese mother and daughter, agricultural workers near Guadalupe, California."  | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-USZ62-129071]​

In fact, Thompson was not formally identified as the titular “Migrant Mother” until 1978, when a Modesto Bee reporter tracked down the 75-year-old at a Modesto trailer park. “That's my picture hanging all over the world, and I can't get a penny out of it,” an embittered Thompson told a reporter in 1979. “I wish she hadn’t of taken my picture... She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

In 1983, Thompson was scraping by on Social Security in Scotts Valley, unable to pay for cancer and heart disease treatment. Her children put out a plea to the public to help with their mother's medical bills.

Well-wishers sent more than $15,000 before Thompson died at age 80. (She outlived Lange, who died of esophageal cancer in 1965 at age 70). Thompson’s family received a message from then-President Ronald Reagan, who, according to the Modesto Bee, wrote, “Mrs. Thompson's passing represents the loss of an American who symbolizes strength and determination in the midst of the Great Depression.”

Richard Ortiz is a migrant worker in Nipomo, California where famous photographer Dorothea Lange took a photograph of the Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson in the 1930s
Carol M. Highsmith, "Richard Ortiz is a migrant worker in Nipomo, California where famous photographer Dorothea Lange took a photograph of the 'Migrant Mother,' Florence Owens Thompson in the 1930s." | Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  [LC-USZ62-129071]​

Thompson is buried at Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson, outside of Modesto. Her gravestone reads “Migrant Mother -- a legend of the strength of American Motherhood.”

But her likeness and legacy lives on in “Migrant Mother,” which remains one of the most popular images in the Library of Congress' archives. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp featuring “Migrant Mother” as part of its “Celebration of the Century” series.

According to Lester, “Migrant Mother’s” continuing popularity is proof that a historical marker recognizing its connection to San Luis Obispo County is needed.

“I've got 50 experts around the country -- photography professors and museum folks and everyday folks -- that are interested in the project,” Lester said. He's enlisted the help of the National Press Photographers Association to raise money for the marker, which he estimates will cost $2,500 for fabrication and installation.

Lester also hopes to cover travel expenses for members of the Lange and Thompson families so they can attend the marker's dedication ceremony, slated for next spring. He's already in touch with Lange's granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, who wrote and directed the “American Masters” documentary “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.”

Jenzen, meanwhile, is also working to honor the Central Coast’s connection to the Great Depression. The newly revamped Dunes Center, which reopens July 30, will feature a section on agriculture featuring a wall-sized version of the portrait Lange shot in March 1937 of a Japanese mother and child working in the fields of Guadalupe.

"Nipomo was a pretty fascinating place during the Depression," said Jenzen, who explores the region's history in his book "Nipomo and Los Berros," part of the "Images of America" series. "It’s this fantastic piece of history that seems to go unrecognized."

Top image: Dorothea Lange, "Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California," 1936. | Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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