Taken in a pea-pickers’ camp in the Nipomo Valley, Migrant Mother was enormously successful in bringing attention to the plight of California sharecroppers. Upon the image’s publication and submission to the government, the Roosevelt Administration sent 20,000 pounds of food to the settlement. Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in Lange’s photograph, embodied American ideals of hard work, and the photograph also suggested the promise of a still-extant (white) nuclear family that would push a shaky nation into a brighter future.
Not commonly known, however, is the fact that Thompson was 100 percent Cherokee, born on American Indian land in present-day Oklahoma—or that her first husband, with whom she had six children, had died five years before Migrant Mother was taken. Thompson had remarried and borne a seventh child.
The triangular composition of Migrant Mother
recalls classic representations of the
, suggesting a celebration of the traditional family—even leading Thompson to be referred to as a “New Deal Madonna.” The reality, however, is that the children under Thompson’s arms are known to be from different fathers. Lange’s straightforward documentary approach captured a much more complicated set of truths about itinerant life in the Depression.
Despite their fame, it would seem that little effort was made to preserve Lange’s original images. A print of Migrant Mother was discovered in a box, among other Lange prints, in a dumpster behind the San Jose Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s, leading to the eventual “rediscovery” of several of her works.
She was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Photography—and she gave it up