Migrant Mother is a photograph by Dorothea Lange taken of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California.1 Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression because of the popularity of her photographs of homeless and unemployed people.
During this time, photographs were considered to portray the truth, and Lange’s images, as well as the photographs from other FSA photographers, were done to show the true situation that many were in as a result of the Great Depression.
“Photographs such as Dorothea Lange’s 1936 portrait “Migrant Mother” and Walker Evans’s 1936 series depicting the faces and homes of Alabama sharecroppers have become icons of the era, pictures that in their directness and simplicity record the conditions of poverty while also celebrating the persistent human spirit of survival in even the most difficult of circumstances.”2
While these images did show people in their situation, they were definitely composed by the photographer to convey a particular reaction from the viewer. While this image by Lange is the most popular, it is one of six images that she took of Florence Owens Thompson and her children. As Lange was taking the photographs, she went closer and closer to her subjects.
When looking at photojournalism, it is important to consider the role of the photographer. Although they may not have posed their subjects, they choose what to and not to include in their images. Why are more people familiar with the one image? I think that it in particular adds a human face to the depression. While the woman has so little, she looks rather determined in the image, and because it is cropped you, you focus on her face and expression more than in the other images. The main image was also retouched to remove the woman’s fingers on the tent post. The image to the left is a unretouched version of the image.
“Like other historical sources, they are interpretations, versions of reality that document facts but also express ideas and opinions and tell stories. As the creators of images photographers are always mindful that their pictures are to be viewed by an audience. They choose particular perspectives and poses to convey messages and use the frame of the photograph to focus attention on certain information while also cutting out “extraneous” material”. 3
The FSA photographers were hired to show people in the city a specific angle of the Depression. “Like many governmental agencies, the FSA set up a publicity department to help explain to the public and Congress what its programs were trying to accomplish and the problems it was trying to solve. But because of the desperation of the Depression and the missionary zeal of the New Dealers, the FSA went far beyond almost any other agency before or since in documenting this era.” 4 To obtain the support of citizens, they wanted images that evoked emotion and apathy towards those in the images. This image is particularly interesting to me because I like to think about the role of the photographer in the image, and I believe that it is very important to think about that, especially when viewing journalistic images.