The Story Behind 'Migrant Mother' One Of The Most Famous Photographs Of All Time

Perhaps no single photo is more symbolic of America’s troubles during the Great Depression than Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” Depicting an itinerant farm worker, Florence Owens Thompson, and five of her children apparently in the grips of despair on the side of the road, this single image came to surmise an entire era. Of course, as photographers, we know that a single image can rarely tell the entire story, so it was enjoyable to land up Simon Whistler’s latest YouTube video for his channel “Today I Found Out.
In the video, we learn that Mrs. Thompson was a farm worker originally hailing from Oklahoma. Like many residents of the area, she was hit hard by both the economy and the environment. The stock market crash of 1929 left between 13 to 15 million Americans unemployed. Following closely behind, the environmental disaster known as The Dust Bowl left farms barren and often uninhabitable.
While 75% of farmers decided to stay and stick it out, Thompson was among the 2.5 million who chose to leave the region in search of greener pastures. Most of the emigrants landing on the West Coast.
Thompson herself, along with her second husband and seven children ended up in California’s San Joaquin Valley. This is where she bumped into photographer Dorothea Lange, who at the time was working on behalf of the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration. He job was to document the status of farming and farmers across the country, and spotted Mrs. Thompson on the side of the road as she was out on assignment.
She pulled over and introduced herself.  
Mrs. Thompson and her family were on their way to look for work when their car had broken down on the side of the road. Her husband and two eldest sons, went in search of help, leaving Florence behind with the remaining five children.
Lange recognized a great subject when she saw one, and shot five frames of Mrs. Thompson around the camp.
Her final frame, which came to be known as “Migrant Mother” was instantly syndicated to papers across the country. Millions around the country, going through the innumerable battles of the Great Depression, were able to identify with the strife apparent in the woman’s face.
And while Mrs. Thompson and her family were decidedly less than thrilled and the instant fame of their mother, understandably not wanting to be known as the face of suffering for an entire nation, over the years, they eventually came to realize the positive impact the image had on their fellow neighbors and the power of being a visual symbol with whom people could relate.
For her part, Dorothea Lange wasn’t exactly raking in the dough despite the iconic status of her instant masterpiece. Being a staff member for the Farm Security Administration, the image was just one from a long term assignment, and was thus owned by the U.S. government. But that one frame lives on to inspire generations of people who can recognize themselves in Mrs. Thompson’s eyes as they face down their own challenges.
For more of the story behind the story, check out the video.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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sounds like she was a handful.

As per the words of Dorothea Lange this article in not an accurate description of the circumstances surround the "Migrant Mother" photo.

“Driving north alone after photographing for a few weeks, it was raining and the camera bags were packed and I had on the seat beside me the rolls of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington. A crude sign flashed by on the side of the road (Pea Pickers Camp). I didn’t want to stop and I didn’t and then an inner argument rose; how about that camp back there…are you going back? Without realizing what I was doing I made a U-turn on the empty highway and following instinct and not reason, I drove into the wet and soggy camp like a homing pigeon. The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anyone. I saw and approached a hungry and desperate mother.”

One of the photographs taken that day by Dorothea Lange of that mother was published in a local newspaper and immediately donations of money poured into the Pea Pickers Camp. The photograph was published all over the country. It has become one of the most recognized photographs in American history.

It was many years after that photo was taken that the Thompson family became aware of the photo while browsing through a photo book.

The whole story is made up. Nipomo is not in the San Joaquin valley. If it was raining, it wasn't frozen. Frosts are few and far between in the area, and don't happen when it's raining. Dorothea Lange made up the story, it is very different than the story told by Florence Thompson.

Lange was being interviewed for the PBS story more than thirty years after the facts. Nipomo is indeed over on the coast, but it would be on a route from Los Angeles as mentioned. The crop might have been killed off in a frost, and it surely could have been raining in that area in that type of weather. The subject mentions that she thinks Lange put various stories together to make a story.

Yes, I was somewhat disappointed to learn last year, after hearing, and for years believing Dorothea Lange's "version" of her story, that she did NOT get her facts straight. Unlike the author of this FStoppers article, though, she at least DID get the location correct, Nipomo, CA, NOT San Joaquin Valley!