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The Making of an Iconic Photograph: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

The complex backstory of one of the most famous images of the Great Depression.
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In the field notes that she filed with her Nipomo photographs, Lange included the following description: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”

Owens scoffed at the description. “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell,” he told this writer. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

“Mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions, so what she [Lange] wrote she must have got from the older kids or other people in the camp,” speculates daughter Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo with her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder. “She also told mother the negatives would never be published — that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

So what are we to make of what we thought we knew about this photograph and what we know now? In 2009, Errol Morris wrote of the FSA photos:
 
Rothstein, Lange and Evans have been accused of posing their photographs, in short, of manipulating them to some end. And yet all photographs are posed. There is no such thing as pure documentary photography. The problem is not in what any of them have done, but in our misunderstanding of photography. No crimes were committed by the F.S.A. photographers. They labored as employees of an organization dedicated to providing propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. And they created some of the greatest photographs in American history. Photographs can be works of art, bearers of evidence, and a connection with the past for individuals, families and society as a whole. It should not be lost on any of us that these controversies are still with us. The Photoshop alteration of a photograph “documenting” the launching of Iranian missiles, the cropping of a Christmas get-together at the Cheney ranch. These are just the latest iterations. In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected in a contentious election. Photography played a controversial role, reminding us that wherever there are intense disagreements, particularly political disagreements, there will be disagreements about photography, as well.
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