Using the analytical model developed by Jo Spence and Rosy Martin (see here for more detail on the model itself) I will consider the famous image produced by Dorothea Lange in 1936.
Described by MOMA’s Sarah Meister as ‘arguably the most famous photograph ever made’ (Meister, 2020) ‘Migrant Mother’ is an iconic image taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. Drawing on Lange’s experience as a portrait photographer, and using a medium format Graflex camera, it features a migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, sitting under a tarpaulin sheet with three of her seven children. Wearing ragged clothes and with a thoroughly unkempt appearance, the scene depicts a family in a state of destitution. The mother’s haunting gaze, a furrowed brow, and with her thoughtful stare suggests she is deeply troubled by their plight and searching for answers.
The photograph was taken on the edge of a pea field in Nipomo, California when Lange worked for the United States’ Resettlement Administration (later to become the Farm Security Administration). Her job was to document the lives and conditions of ‘migratory farm labour’ (Lange, 1960).
But why would the American Government employ Lange, along with a team of other photographers, including Walker Evans, Russell Lee and Gordon Parks, to take more than 100,000 photographs?
The Great Depression of the 1930s, and its negative effect on farm prices, together with historical agricultural mismanagement – soil erosion, accumulated debts, floods and droughts – had left the agricultural sector in a parlous state. The Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, responded with a controversial set of interventionist policies known as the New Deal, of which the Resettlement Administration was part. Its remit included ‘rural rehabilitation, land utilisation, rural and suburban resettlement’ (Alexander, 1937).
However, the Resettlement Administration faced widespread criticism for its socialist interventionism. Newspaper headlines such as ‘First Communist Town in U.S. Nears Completion’ (Pearlman, 2007) fanned the flames. Roosevelt needed to get his message across. In the Resettlement Administration’s 1937 Annual Report, William W. Alexander noted the vital role visual media plays in ‘building up an intelligent public understanding of problems concerning our land resources’ (Alexander, 1937).
Migrant Mother proved to be a success in this regard. On March 1936 the image was printed in the San Francisco News together with an article highlighting the workers’ plight. In response, 20,000lbs of food was dispatched from Los Angeles.
The life of this iconic photograph is a fascinating story. It was nearly never made. Returning home tired, after weeks on assignment, Lange initially ignored the campsite sign and drove past. Some 20 miles later, having argued with herself, she turned around and backtracked to the camp. She walked straight to the family, took seven photographs and then left. Its early life was in service of the United States government for propaganda purposes and to highlight the plight of the workers. It has subsequently become the most reproduced image in history.
And perhaps most interestingly it’s owned by nobody. A copy of the negative can be downloaded from the United States Library of Congress website and is freely available for reproduction.
Alexander, W. (1937). Report of the Administrator of the Resettlement Administration, 1937. [online] Washington, DC: United States of America, Resettlement Administration, p.3. Available at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/shcgi/pt?id=coo.31924071822492&view=1up&seq=5 [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Lange, D. (1960). The Assignment I’ll Never Forget. Popular Photography, [online] pp.42,128. Available at: https://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/lklichfall13/files/2013/09/Lange.pdf [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Meister, S. (2019). Dorothea Lange Words and Pictures. 1st ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, p.138.
Meister, S. (2020). Piecing Together Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother | Magazine. [online] Moma.org. Available at: https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/233 [Accessed 9 Feb. 2020].
Pearlman, J. (2007). Inventing American modernism. 1st ed. Charlottesville, Va., [etc.]: University of Virginia Press, pp.157,158.