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Art in focus | Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother

Depression's 'Migrant Mother' remains a powerful image

You know this face. And the deep emotional response it generates even 72 years after it first appeared in a San Francisco newspaper. • Today, as we honor our own mothers, we should think, too, about the thousands who struggle daily just to keep themselves and their children alive. • As this mother was doing in March 1936 during the Great Depression when photographer Dorothea Lange stumbled upon her at a California migrant workers camp near a field of ruined peas. With a click, Lange made history for herself and the woman, who became an enduring, iconic symbol of courage and survival but remained a mystery as a flesh-and-blood individual. To most people she has always been, simply, Migrant Mother. Her real story, in which she was a victim not only of circumstances but also distortions of personal memory and historical lapses, is far more complicated.

The photographer

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was born in New Jersey, studied her craft with several noted photographers and in 1918 started a successful portrait studio in San Francisco. She achieved fame documenting the grim human toll of the Great Depression. In 1952 she was one of a group that included Ansel Adams that founded the influential Aperture magazine, dedicated to promoting photography as an art form. Her final years were marked by illnesses relating to polio, which she had contracted as a child and left her with a noticeable limp throughout her life. She often said that her limp seemed to make her downtrodden subjects more comfortable with her, as she approached them with a large, intimidating camera for her signature close-up shots, because they recognized that she understood suffering.

The photograph

Migrant Mother is Lange's most famous image and one of the most famous in the history of photography. But it almost never happened. According to her recollections in a 1960s interview that are now in the Library of Congress archives, Lange had finished a monthlong assignment for a government agency documenting migrant farm laborers in the Los Angeles area and was heading for home in Berkeley one rainy afternoon. She passed a camp, drove 20 miles, then reluctantly turned around, thinking she might find more subjects.

At least 2,500 workers and their families were living there in near starvation, the pea crop they hoped to harvest having been destroyed by freezing rain. She approached a mother and children, sheltered in a lean-to tent pitched in the mud. Without a word, she began taking photographs, moving ever closer as the children shied away from the camera. She shot six frames. The last one, she knew, was the one: the woman holding her infant, two of her other daughters clinging to her, their faces buried in her shoulders.

Before Lange left, she found out the woman was 32 and had seven children, but she didn't get her name. In describing the scene later, she would say, incorrectly, that the family had sold their tires for food.

Lange sent prints to a government agency in Washington. Appalled, government officials sent 20,000 pounds of food. Lange took another set to the San Francisco News. That last photograph became an instant touchstone for the plight of migrants.

The family left the camp the day the photograph was taken and didn't benefit from the food drop, nor did they come forward when the photograph ran. Lange seemed never to have tried to find the family and Migrant Mother, the person, vanished from public sight for almost 40 years.

The mother

The woman was Florence Owens. She was not typical of most migrant farm workers, being a resident of California rather than a refugee from the midwestern Dust Bowl disaster. She was a Cherokee, born in 1903 in Oklahoma, and she and her family had been evicted from their tribal lands by the government years earlier.

She and her parents were living in Mississippi when she married Cleo Owens in 1921. Florence and Cleo moved, with other members of his family, to California to work in the sawmills and farming areas around Sacramento. She had five children (Violet, Viola, Leroy, Troy and Ruby) and was pregnant with a sixth (Katherine) when Cleo died of tuberculosis in 1931. By then, the depression had wiped out the sawmills and the family was struggling to survive.

Florence worked two jobs to support the children. A relationship with a prominent man resulted in a seventh child and Florence, fearing he would try to take custody of the infant son, Charlie, left town with the kids. They eventually wound up farther south, in the San Joaquin Valley. For years Florence lived with but never married Jim Hill. Their first child, Norma, was about a year old when the family was headed to pick lettuce and their car broke down at the pea field on that fateful day. Hill and the two older boys went into town to get their radiator fixed.

Lange came and went. And suddenly there was the photograph of Florence with Katherine, left, Ruby and baby Norma splashed across the newspaper.

The Owens-Hill family were aware of the photograph's publication because Troy saw it when he was working a paper route a day or two later. He said when he showed his mother the newspaper, "she just looked at it. She didn't say nothin.' "

The couple had three more children, one of whom died in infancy. The family never lived in one place for very long, following the crops through California. Hill was, according to one of his children, a good person who had no sense of responsibility or ambition. Florence and Hill split, and she married George Thompson, a hospital administrator, after the end of World War II. Her life became more comfortable though, her children said, she lived in a mobile home, never a house, because she always wanted to be able to move on if bad times returned.

Florence Owens Thompson died several weeks after her 80th birthday, surrounded by her family which numbered more than 100 and included grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Controversy
and vindication

In the late 1970s, a reporter tracked down Florence Owens Thompson, by then a widow living in Modesto. She broke her silence and blasted Lange, who had died in 1965. "I wish she hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She (Lange) didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did," Thompson said in a story that made the national news.

Even with renewed interest in her, Thompson preferred privacy to the limelight.

In 1983 Thompson had a stroke and required round-the-clock nurses her family couldn't afford so they went public again, asking for contributions to help with medical expenses. Almost $35,000 poured in, mostly small donations from people moved by the resolute set of the young mother's face. She died several months later at her son Troy's home and is buried near Modesto under a gravestone bearing the inscription, "Migrant Mother — A Legend of Strength of American Motherhood."

'A sense of pride'

In 2002 documentary filmmaker Geoffrey Dunne wrote an extensive biography of Florence Owens Thompson for New Times magazine in San Luis Obispo. Interviews with her children reveal a woman who found the photograph humiliating, stereotyping her as a pathetic vagabond. Norma Rydlewski, the infant in the photograph, said, "Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That's not how I remember her."

Florence's son Troy Owens added his own disappointment in Lange's depiction of the encounter, especially the detail she perpetuated in a 1960 interview about the family selling its tires. Dunne, in New Times, quotes him: "There's no way we sold our tires because we didn't have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have."

But the bitterness had been eased by the outpouring of support before his mother died.

"None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama's photo affected people," said Owens. "I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride."

Dorothea Lange, a great photojournalist, can be faulted for failing to fully report the story of the Migrant Mother. But she never made much money on the photograph. Unlike most famous photographs, which are copyrighted and are reprinted only with permission and often for a hefty charge, Migrant Mother belongs to the U.S. government and can be used free in stories such as this one. Prints can be ordered for a small fee from the Library of Congress. In 1998, Migrant Mother became a 32-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp in the Celebrate the Century series. The photograph, considered a work of art, hangs in major museum collections throughout the world.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

Depression's 'Migrant Mother' remains a powerful image 05/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 8:26am]
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