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Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California is a black and white photograph showing a woman holding a baby, with two older children standing on either side of her, leaning against her shoulders and facing away from the camera. The figures are shown close-to, with their heads and the upper parts of their bodies visible down to roughly their waists. Most of the setting is cropped out of the photograph, although a sheet of coarse material can be seen directly behind the sitters. The woman has dark hair that is swept back behind her head and wears a worn-looking cardigan over a checked shirt. Her right hand is raised to her chin and this, along with her furrowed brow and her eyes that gaze into the distance, gives her a reflective or concerned appearance. The two older children also have shabby clothes and unkempt-looking hair, and the baby has a slightly dirty face and is wrapped in a piece of cloth. At the right of the composition is what looks like a thick wooden stick, which is out of focus due to its close proximity to the camera, and on inspection a partly transparent thumb can be seen curled around the lower part of the stick.
This picture was taken by the American social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange near Nipomo, California, in February or March 1936. It is a silver gelatin print on paper and the scene was captured by Lange using a 4x5 Graflex RB Series D camera. Lange took the picture at the end of a month-long trip during which she had been photographing farm labourers in Southern California for a federal government agency called the Resettlement Administration (RA). On the day that she took Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, Lange had just begun her journey home to San Francisco when she saw a roadside sign reading ‘PEA-PICKERS CAMP’. She initially ignored it, but after travelling twenty miles she turned around and drove back to the camp, where she approached a woman whom she has described as a ‘hungry and desperate mother’ and took six photographs of her and her children, moving closer to them each with each shot (Lange in Heron and Williams 1996, p.152). The first two pictures included the woman’s teenage daughter, who does not feature in this photograph. In 1938 Lange retouched the negative for this image, partially removing the image of the woman’s thumb on the stick to the right. Due to Lange’s employment by the RA the negative is owned by the US government and is held in the Library of Congress, which is responsible for producing and authorising all prints of the work.
The RA was founded in 1935 to relocate and support farmers who were working on unproductive land. It was formed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ of 1933 – a series of programmes designed to offer relief and promote economic recovery during the Great Depression. Lange worked for the RA’s photodocumentary project, which was run by the government official and photographer Roy Stryker and aimed to support the RA’s efforts by producing images that would demonstrate the hardship suffered by American farm workers.
Like most photographs produced for the RA, the title of this work does not give the name of its principal sitter, but instead makes reference to a general category or type – ‘migrant mother’. The historian James C. Curtis has argued that this was a practice employed by the RA to ensure that the figures depicted would be seen as representative of the ‘common men and women whose plight the Roosevelt administration was working to improve’ (Curtis 1986, p.4).
In 1978 a reporter named Emmett Corrigan identified the woman in this photograph as Florence Owens Thompson. In the same year, in an interview with Corrigan for a local newspaper called The Modesto Bee, Thompson stated: ‘I wish she hadn’t taken my picture … I can’t get a penny out of it. [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’ (quoted in Don Nardo, Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression, Oakland 2011, p.46). The historian of photography Sally Stein has argued that the identification of the woman in the photograph as Thompson changed its significance as a social and historical document: prior to this it had been assumed that the subject was an American of European descent, whereas she was actually a Native American, and according to Stein the plight of this group during the Depression is often excluded from historical accounts of this period (Stein in International Centre of Photography 2004, pp.352–3).
James C. Curtis, ‘Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression’, Winterthur Portfolio, vol.21, no.1, Spring 1986, pp.1–20, reproduced p.4.
Dorothea Lange, ‘The Assignment I’ll Never Forget’, in Liz Heron and Val Williams, Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present, London 1996, pp.151–3.
Sally Stein, ‘Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and the Paradox of Iconicity’, in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, exhibition catalogue, International Centre of Photography, New York 2004, pp.345–55, reproduced p.344.
Supported by Christie’s.