Dorothea Lange was operating a successful portrait studio in San Francisco, photographing some of the city’s most elite, when she walked past a breadline near her office. Moved by the faces of the unemployed and homeless, she began snapping pictures, soon moving from the city streets to the migrant camps popping up in the nearby countryside. Her photos captured the attention of the newly created Farm Security Administration, who hired her, along with several others, to travel around and document scenes of rural poverty and capture highlights of their programs at work.
One day in 1936, Lange found herself in Nipoma, California at a campsite for out-of-work pea pickers. A few days earlier, freezing rain had fallen, destroying the crop and forcing hundreds of laborers out of work. Among the despondent crowds, Lange spotted a woman sitting in front of a tent surrounded by her seven children. Recalling the encounter many years later, Lange stated:
“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. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.”
Photo Courtesy of MoMA
One of the resulting images, aptly named ‘Migrant Mother,’ was widely circulated to newspapers and magazines. With her weather-beaten face, worried expression, and dirty, desperate children by her side, the woman quickly became a symbol of the thousands of migrants displaced by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Lange gave voice to the woman’s situation, saying, “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.”
And yet, for many years, the woman herself remained unnamed and silent. By the time the photograph’s fame had spread, the woman and her family had moved on, seemingly lost in the shuffle of migration and history.
Lost, that is, until 1978, when a determined newspaper reporter tracked her down at a trailer park outside Modesto, California. The Migrant Mother’s name was Florence Owens Thompson. She had never wanted her name to be revealed, fearing shame and embarrassment for her children. But now, at age 75, she was ready to tell her story.
Born Florence Leona Christie, the woman was actually part Cherokee, born in Indian Territory in what is now modern-day Oklahoma in 1903. She moved to California at age 17, marrying and having children until her husband died of tuberculosis a short time later. She was only 28 and pregnant with her sixth child when she laid him in the ground. With several mouths to feed and no other means of support, she took working odd jobs, mainly as a farmhand, picking whatever crops needed to be picked, often carrying her babies in bags with her down the rows as she worked. According to her testimony, she earned fifty cents per hundred pounds picked and usually picked between 450 to 500 pounds a day. The low wages and low hours meant the family often had to choose between food and shelter, leaving them homeless, sleeping under bridges and in their car.
One day, while driving from Los Angeles to Watsonville in search of work, Thompson’s car broke down. It was towed to a pea-picker’s camp outside Nipomo, where the family was waiting for it to be repaired when Lange showed up and asked to take their picture. Thompson was at first reluctant to have her family photographed, not wanting them to be gawked at like exhibits in a zoo of poverty, but relented after Lange convinced her the picture would serve to educate the general public of their plight. Within weeks, the photo was everywhere, bringing light to the dark truth of rural poverty and skyrocketing Lange into fame, earning her a Guggenheim fellowship and solidifying her place among the elite of America’s photographers. The subject of the picture, however, continued her in quest to merely survive.
By 1945, the Thompson family had settled in Modesto, and Florence had found work in a hospital. Although the pay was better, she still had to work 16-hour days, 7 days a week in order to feed her family. Despite having the most famous face in America, Florence earned not a single penny from the photograph. It wasn’t until news of her death from a stroke in 1983 that donations began to pour in, eventually totaling nearly $15,000, which helped cover the cost of her funeral and past medical care, bills her family would have otherwise been unable to cover. Even in death, the Migrant Mother was still caring for her children.
Thompson’s story could have easily have been one of bitterness, of the unfair disparity between the have’s and the have-not’s. It could also have been one of martyrdom, of the put-upon mother who gave tirelessly and without reward to those in need, giving up even her face and dignity for the greater good. But, those who interviewed her before her death found neither. “We just existed,” she said matter-of-factly, with no trace of sentimentality or regret. “Anyway, we lived. We survived, let’s put it that way.”
And, for those who faced the challenges of the Great Depression, perhaps that was the greatest triumph of all.