Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is certainly one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century. And just as the photo is striking, so is the story behind it. In this video from Nerdwriter, you can hear more about how Lange took this photo and how it became one of the symbols of the Great Depression.
It’s interesting that it was pretty close for the Migrant Mother never to be taken. In March 1936, Dorothea Lange was coming back home after a long day of work. She drove past the Pea-Pickers Camp in Nipomo, north of L.A. without stopping to photograph the pickers, who had nothing to do because the crops froze. The photographer kept going for 20 miles when something told her to turn around and go back there.
Lange listened to her instinct and went back. In one of the improvised tents, she spotted Florence Owens Thompson, who became the subject of her iconic image – and five other attempts before it. Lange didn’t stay at the camp long. She interacted with Thompson, setting the scene in different ways and trying to capture the essence of the scene she saw at the camp. In the video, you can see the series of photos Lange took that day, each of them being closer to what she eventually captured. Closer to the essence of the Great Depression, to the impact it had on the society and on families across the country.
In 1939, Lange had an assistant to retouch the negative and remove Thompson’s thumb from the bottom right corner because she believed that it was a distraction. Along with staging the scene, it turns out that there was very little spontaneity in Lange’s image that soon became iconic. But does it diminish the power of this image?
According to the Nerdwriter, being able to see the steps of Lange’s process even enhances her work. Staging the scene doesn’t remove the power from the image nor presents the situation better or worse than it was. When it comes to this image in particular, I tend to agree. Even though it’s a well thought-through photo, it tells the true story that was supposed to be told. In a way, it’s symbolic, and not only a literal representation of the situation. Although, there’s probably room for discussion whether or not it can be called a “documentary photo.” What do you think?