migrant mother story :: famine + fame = photog fortune


"Migrant Mother" story :: famine + fame

"As the United States sank into the Great Depression, a female photographer named Dorothea Lange turned her attention away from studio + portrait work toward the suffering. Taking a Government job as a photographer for the U.S. Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency tasked with helping poor families relocate, Lange went to California, to a campsite of out-of-work pea pickers. The crop had been destroyed by freezing rain; there was nothing to pick. Lange approached a woman sitting in a tent, surrounded by her 7 children, + asked if she could photograph them. "Migrant Mother" became the iconic photo of the Depression, + one of the most familiar images of the 20th century. At the time, the dust-blown interior of the United States was full of families like hers, whom poverty had forced off their land into a life of wandering. Their poverty was total; they had nothing. Where is her husband, the children's father? She is on her own. There is no help, no protection. There are few images as deeply ingrained in the national consciousness as Migrant Mother. Yet for decades, no one knew what had become of this woman + her family. No one even knew her name: Lange never asked. Finally, in 1978, a reporter from the Modesto Bee found the Migrant Mother in a trailer park outside Modesto, California. Her name was Florence Owens Thompson; she was 75.

Thompson was born a Cherokee, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, in 1903. She married at 17, then moved to California. When she was 28 years old + pregnant, her husband died. Thereafter Thompson worked odd jobs of all kinds to keep her children fed. For most of the 1930s, she was an itinerant farmhand, picking whatever was in season.
During harvests, she would put her babies in bags + carry them along with her as she worked down the rows. She earned 50 cents per 100 pounds picked + says she generally picked around 450 - 500 pounds a day. For a while, she and her children lived under a bridge.
In 1936, at a pea-pickers camp, Dorothea Lange appeared. Thompson was not eager to have her family photographed + exhibited as specimens of poverty, but there were people starving in that camp, + Lange convinced her that the image would educate the public about the plight of hardworking but poor people like herself. Within days, the photo was being published in papers across the country — an instant classic of American photography.
Thompson moved to Modesto in 1945 + went to work in a hospital there. She had one of the most famous faces in the United States, yet, to keep her family together, she had to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. "I worked in hospitals, I tended bar, I worked in the field. So I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids." Thompson profited nothing from Migrant Mother.
Meanwhile, Migrant Mother made Dorothea Lange's reputation, helped earn her a Guggenheim fellowship, + conferred fame + a permanent place in the canon of American photographers. Lange certainly deserved her success; she had an eye, talent, training, + drive. Yet it seems unjust that Migrant Mother, one of the most successful photographs in American history, should have helped so many, but done nothing for the woman whose face + body were able to express so much. Thompson was a model; she was posing, + she knew why. She was to represent the very Figure of Poverty. So she organized her posture + set her expression just so for Lange's camera. And that is a talent, too. Thompson + Lange, for an instant in 1936, were collaborators. Yet the gulf between their fortunes, already colossal, would only grow wider as years passed." edited via pbs
images: califoria history museum

American Masters: Dorothea Lange : Grab a Hunk of Lightning, new documentary about "Migrant Mother" photographer :: broadcast premiere this Friday, August 29 on PBS

"Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning documentary explores the life + vision of the influential photographer, whose enduring images document 5 decades of American history. features interviews + vérité scenes with Lange at her San Francisco Bay Area home studio, circa 1962-1965, including work on her unprecedented 1-woman career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Reveals the camera as Lange’s first muse + the confluence of artists at work + in love, explains the impact of these relationships on Lange’s life, + demonstrates the challenges of balancing artistic pursuits with family."
"Dorothea Nutzhorn was born in 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. She enrolled in the New York Training School for Teachers 1914 - 1917. She dropped her father's surname + adopted her mother's. Lange worked in photography studios + attended a class at Columbia University.
In 1918, she moved to San Francisco, where she opened a successful portrait studio. She lived in Berkeley. In 1935 she married a Professor of Economics at University of California, Berkeley. Together they documented rural poverty + migrant laborers for 5 years; Lange took the photos, + Taylor interviewed people + collected data.
During World War II she was hired by the U.S. War Relocation Authority to document the internment camps of Japanese-Americans, + by the U.S. State Department to photograph the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. In 1952, she cofounded the photography magazine Aperture." 

mod*mom  Cherokee Citizen + U.S. Citizen