Sunday, July 11, 2010

Migrant mother

1st image) "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange (1936), originally titled "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California." 2nd image) Dorothea Lange in 1936, seated on her Ford Model C Wagon holding her Graflex 4x5 camera.

You are no doubt familiar with the photograph at the top, iconic of the Great Depression. But here you will read - in the words of the late Paul Harvey (1918-2009) - "the rest of the story."

American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) had been documenting the homeless and unemployed for the Farm Security Administration for a month when she passed a camp that caused her to make a U-turn. In 10 minutes she took 6 photos of the prematurely-aged widow later identified as Florence Owens (1903-1983) and 3 of her 7 children - Katherine (4), Ruby (5), and Norma (1) - in California. Lange remembered, "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it." The "Migrant Mother" photo was published in newspapers across the country and at public insistence, the government sent the camp 0f 2,500 workers 20,000 lbs. of food. But Florence and her family - living the itinerant life described in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath - had only pulled into the camp because their car broke down, and were soon on their way to Watsonville. Her family explains, "We were already long gone from Nipomo by the time any food was sent there. That photo may well have saved some peoples’ lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn’t save ours. Our life was hard long after that photograph was taken. That photo never gave mother or us kids any relief." Florence saw the printed image when her sons brought home one of the newspapers they had been selling to make extra money. She hated the photo and was resentful of Lange, believing mistakenly that she was profiting from its use.

In the 1970s (long after Lange had died), a remarried Florence Thompson came forward to identify herself as the woman in the famous photograph. At the same time, Bill Ganzel was researching his book Dust Bowl Descent and sought her out, photographing her with the daughters who had appeared in the Lange photo. In 1983, her family appealed to the public to raise money for her medical care, Florence having had a stroke and been diagnosed with cancer. The family observed, "None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama’s photo affected people….I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride."

Florence died in 1983 and was buried beneath a gravestone that reads, "Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood." She leaves as her legacy 10 children, 39 grandchildren, 74 great-grandchildren - and this photograph. But her daughter Norma, the baby in the photo, says, "Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children. She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her."

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