I have been asked to make a short presentation to the PhotoBath group on an image that has always inspired me. It actually didn’t take long to decide that it was Dorothea Lange‘s photograph taken during the Great Depression, in California (Nipomo), in 1936. It is generally known as “Migrant Mother“.
Dorothea was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions. It was a picture that literally changed history. That day, Dorothea took only six images, using her Graflex series D 4×5 camera. Note, only six images … how many would most of us take today? Also, at that time, she did not talk to her subjects.
Lange later said: “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 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.”
To quote eyewitnesshistory: “After returning home, Lange alerted the editor of a San Francisco newspaper to the plight of the workers at the camp, presenting him with two of her photos. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included Lange’s images. As a result, the government rushed a shipment of 20,000 lbs. of food to the camp. The mother and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived. The photo’s wider impact included influencing John Steinbeck in the writing of his novel The Grapes of Wrath.”
As she was funded by the federal government, the image was in the public domain and Dorothea never directly received any royalties. The image was issued as a 32 cent U.S. stamp in 1998.
The mother’s name was only discovered in the 1970s. She was Florence Owens Thompson, mother at that time of seven children, and there is some evidence that she hadn’t expected the picture to be published. She never made a penny from the photograph, although she went on to build a much better life, and she died in 1980. Dorothea Lange had died in 1965.
From a photographer’s perspective, there are a couple of very interesting points to note. First, the original image had a thumb showing in the bottom left, as shown by the original record held by the Farm Security Administration. This was retouched out, and that version became the picture that we all know.
Once you know this, you will for ever see the thumb, even in the modified image. Not an issue at all for me, but Photoshop ethics, anyone … ?
Secondly, the other 5 frames taken by Dorothea had the children facing towards the photographer. She then asked the children to turn away, and the iconic image was born. Purists argued that the result wasn’t really “documentary”. Here are the other frames:
However, I would disagree with those purists. The essence of the massive problems faced by Florence and others really shone through because of this intervention by Dorothea. Isn’t that what documentary is all about?
To complete the historical perspective, there was an image taken of Dorothea with her camera, by Rondale Partridge, son of Imogen Cunningham. Dorothea is holding her Graflex 4×5 single lens reflex camera. This camera took single sheet film, and the photographer looks down at the glass through the rectangular opening at the top of the camera, viewing an image that is flipped upside-down and backward. When the photographer trips the lever, the lens stops down, the mirror goes up against the ground glass, the fabric shutter in front of the film slides up and allows the light to expose the film. The photographer then changes the film to the next sheet and sets up the next image. From shorpy.com.
Adding a personal twist to the story, in 2000 Ingrid and I were starting our Cambodian school building program, and we visited the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation Areas (with Save the Children, see yatesweb). These areas of the country had remained under Khmer Rouge control since 1979, with extremely limited schooling and very poor, subsistence living conditions.
Now, I do not want to claim to have any of the skills or vision of Ms. Lange, but I took this image. It was one of the families at Trapeang Prasat, and was shot with a Nikon D1.
In retrospect, I should have tried to eliminate the people standing behind.
The image was not “posed”, though I have always thought that a little of the mournfulness in the picture is in some way reflective of my long standing inspiration from Dorothea’s work.
There is an excellent monograph on Dorothea Lange published in the Aperture Masters of Photography series.
Very well worth reading and studying.