‘Migrant Mother, 1936’

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, Barbican Art Gallery / Prestel, 2018

An essay on Dorothea Lange’s well-known image, written for The Politics of Seeing, the  book of the Barbican Art Gallery London / Jeu de Paume, Pari exhibition. Published by Prestel, 2018

Other essays by Drew Heath Johnson, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Alona Pardo.

French edition: ‘La Mere Migrante’, in Politiques du Visible, Prestel, 2018


From the introduction to the essay:

‘Iconic’ photographs have a kind of fame that is self-perpetuating. Like celebrities, the more they are seen, the more they are seen; and the more they circulate, the more they circulate – but the less they are understood. As their status grows, their meaning becomes vague, little more than the accumulation of clichés and received wisdom.

More often than not, photographs become iconic when they become default substitutes for the complexities of the history, people or circumstances they could never fully articulate but to which they remain connected, however tentatively. As with monuments to almost forgotten battles, they are symbolic placeholders, public markers for a missing comprehension. If any photograph deserves the mixed blessing of being described as ‘iconic’ it is Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936). It has become one of the most recognised and reproduced, with all the power and problems this entails.

In February 1936 Lange was travelling and shooting in central California on assignment from the US government’s Resettlement Administration (RA, later known as the Farm Security Administration, or FSA). After a month away, she was driving back to her home in Berkeley when, near the town of Nipomo, she noticed a sign to a pea-picker’s camp. Lange later recalled, perhaps with a little narrative drama, that she drove on for twenty miles until, ‘following instinct, not reason’, she turned around.[i]

The recent pea crop had frozen and around 2,500 pickers were out of work, nearly out of food, and camping, in desperation. Although Government help was on its way, the situation in Nipomo was dire. Lange saw a woman seated before a makeshift tent with children around her. She took out her large-format (4 × 5 inch) camera, mounted it on its tripod and made seven exposures.[ii] It took less than ten minutes to take the photographs. Lange usually spent longer, talking with people and making notes. On this occasion she didn’t even get the woman’s name. Much of Lange’s account of that day comes from an interview she gave 24 years later, to Popular Photography magazine:

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 [sic], 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 thirty-two. 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.[iii]

For ethical reasons, Lange preferred not to photograph people unawares. Most often there was at first some kind rapport to be established. The resulting images could be described as collaborative, although the precise nature of such collaboration can be too nuanced to define. Suffice it to say, the avoidance of the problems of candid photography in favour of a more participatory approach has its own challenges for the photographer, subjects and eventual audience. However closely we study the photographs, we shall never know exactly what went on between Lange and the woman and her children.

[i] Dorothea Lange, ‘The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother’, Popular Photography, February 1960.

[ii] Lange submitted only five of these images to the FSA, whose holdings are now in the public domain at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. The sixth image surfaced when Lange’s husband Paul S. Taylor used it in an article for American West magazine in May 1970. The seventh exists only as a contact sheet in the Dorothea Lange Archive, Oakland Museum of California.

[iii] Dorothea Lange, ‘The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother’, Popular Photography, February 1960.